Only effective fire management can resolve the problem of mitigating risk to human life and property whilst concurrently mitigating risk to environmental values e.g. biodiversity, air quality, and carbon stocks. Bushfire research by the University of Wollongong (UOW) has provided the knowledge and capacity to help resolve the complex trade-offs required to meet this immense challenge. Specifically it has improved fire management decision making by addressing risk management policies and strategies used by fire agencies in Australia and overseas. Results have been incorporated into policy and strategy revisions with the outcome that fire management strategies in NSW and Victoria have been transformed to provide better protection for property and ecosystems.
11. Sustainable cities and communities
13. Climate action
15. Life on land
Details of the Impact
Bushfire research by the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires (CERMB), led by Prof Ross Bradstock and through our long-term partnerships with State, Federal and International agencies, had a wide-reaching impact on bushfire management strategies at ecological, environmental, economic, and community levels. Benefits have been most apparent in NSW and Victoria, but the influence of UOW research was also felt internationally. In particular, research via collaborators in Europe and the USA directly influenced the development of policies dealing with climate change adaptation and risk management for protection of people and properties from wildfires. Impacts were in four main areas:
1. BUSHFIRE RISK MANAGEMENT: Research provided critical evidence of the efficacy of land management strategies on bushfire spread and severity. Research directly influenced the specifications for deployment of strategic prescribed burning as a key risk mitigation activity via various policy and planning initiatives. Pivotal to this was Bradstock’s involvement as a member of the Expert Panel on Land Management at the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission and the subsequent 2014 review panel for the Victorian Bushfire Reform Process. The Royal Commission produced recommendations concerning strategic prescribed burning for risk mitigation (along with recommendations on protecting environmental values) that resulted in ongoing policy responses and operational changes in various Australian states.
i) Victoria adopted the prescribed burning targets recommended by the Royal Commission in 2010 and subsequently revised these to shift from an area or percentage target approach to a risk based approach. CERMB research was pivotal in shaping these formal policy shifts via the Expert Panel and the 2014 Review of the Bushfire Reform Process.
ii) As result of knowledge generated by CERMB research, implementation of prescribed burns at positions close to developments was defined as a key priority in the 2021 NSW State Plan. Subsequent evaluation and endorsement of this approach was performed by the NSW Hazard Reduction Audit committee, which included Bradstock as a Committee member. Recommendations of this Committee were transferred into relevant policies of the NSW Bushfire Co-ordinating Committee, which define the basis for risk management planning (undertaken by the NSW RFS) and operational activities for bushfire risk management in NSW.
iii) Implementation of the NSW Environmental Assessment Code for Hazard reduction in NSW, which specifies minimal intervals for burning in different vegetation communities, was directly based on research and tools developed by Bradstock and CERMB, such as the NSW Fire Response database. Minimum fire interval analysis techniques (i.e. GIS tools) developed by Bradstock and CERMB are used to derive key layers contained in bushfire risk management plans developed by NSW RFS and NSW NPWS.
2. PREDICTION MAPPING OF LANDSCAPE FUEL MOISTURE PATTERNS AND THE RISK OF FIRE OCCURRENCE AND IMPACT: Research in this domain assisted the Victorian and NSW Governments (e.g. Vic. DELWP, NSW RFS) in preparing for high impact fire days. Research generated predictive models that triggered these agencies to review and improve their practice, and dynamic mapping is now routinely used to pinpoint landscapes that are critically dry and thus primed for major fires. Furthermore, CERMB were approached by Vic DELWP to develop mapping software for operational monitoring.
3. FACTORS RELATED TO EFFECTIVE BUSHFIRE PREPAREDNESS: Research at UOW led to the development of a web-based application (The Bushfire Householder Assessment Tool: assessmyrisk.rfs.nsw.gov.au) hosted by NSWRFS. This application (currently reaching 1,300 users) enables householders to assess how well prepared they are for bushfire, and evaluate potential risk to life and property. Furthermore, research by CERMB on fuel accumulation was used by the NSW RFS as a key part of their development approval, fire prediction and risk management planning capabilities. Development applications in fire prone areas in NSW are scrutinised according to potential fire intensity scenarios generated by modelling which draws on this fuel accumulation information as a key input. The same fuel information is used by the NSW RFS in operational fire spread prediction and long-term risk modelling for Bushfire Risk Management Plans, via inputs into spatial fire behaviour models. Fuel maps based on this fuel accumulation information are contained in NSW RFS Bushfire Risk Management Plans that are routinely consulted by the fire services (e.g. NPWS, Forestry Corp).
4. ECOLOGICAL RESPONSES TO FIRE REGIMES: Research in this domain was used to assess the state of fire regimes (e.g. fire frequency and intensity) in relation to quantitative fire regime management guidelines for vegetation communities and threatened plant and animal species. Research by CERMB generated fire regime mapping and guidelines contained in bushfire risk management strategies and plans produced by NSW NPWS. As a direct outcome, ecological considerations are now incorporated into operational planning, and have transformed the ‘on ground’ tactical decision making process. This change has strengthened the ability of bushfire management agencies to minimise ecological damage, with the ultimate outcome that threatened species have been afforded a higher level of protection.
NSW RFS Commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, summarised the impact of CERMB research in his speech at the launch of the NSW OEH Bushfire Risk Management Research Hub: “I’m very proud of the fact that the RFS, particularly over the last decade or so, has invested enormously in research and research programs and partnerships with organisations. Our work with the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, in partnership with the OEH, has been a wonderful example.”
- Rural Fire Service (NSW)
- Office of Environment and Heritage (NSW)
- Department of Land Water and Planning (VIC)
- Sydney Catchment Authority
- NSW Local Land Services
- Australian Department of Environment and Energy
- US Geological Survey
- European Union
- Australasian Fire Authorities Council (AFAC)
- United States
Approach to Impact
Summary of the approaches to impact
Our long-standing commitment to Environmental Science research targets end-user engagement with key national and international organisations. Through financial and organisational support, we have directly facilitated impactful research in three schools (Biological Sciences, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Chemistry). Exemplifying this support, the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires (CERMB) was established in 2006 as a joint venture between UOW and the NSW Government to conduct, transfer and apply research on bushfire risk into policy and operational management. CERMB facilitates our research translation via educational, reporting and discussion activities along with formal involvement in policy development through various committees and fora.
Approach to Impact
For the past two decades we have strategically planned pathways to maximise the benefits of environmental research for the broader community. Environmental research programs in three schools (Biological Sciences, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Chemistry) have been strongly supported through: long-term financial support (internal grants, salaries, assistantships, PhD and postdoctoral scholarships), development of facilities aimed at leveraging research linkages with national and international impact, facilitation of contribution to major reports, incentivising participation in committees and society meetings bringing researchers and end users together, and supporting bids for collaborative hubs to enable engagement and research translation.
Illustrating our vision and approach, UOW established the CERMB in partnership with the NSW Government in 2006 to translate applied research into strategies to achieve cost-effective bushfire risk mitigation for human and environmental values. Building on a platform of 23 years of internationally acclaimed fire ecology research at UOW (led by Prof Rob Whelan), the aim of the CERMB (led by Prof Ross Bradstock) has been to engage with policy makers to ensure research has direct impact on how fire in Australian landscapes is best managed to minimise risks to key human and environmental values.
This involved significant, sustained external funding by the NSW Rural Fire Service and the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (i.e. total RFS/OEH funding 2006 to 2017 of $4.5 million) and our internal support has contributed direct funding through a 5 year 0.6 FTE professorial salary, a research partnership grant (with RFS), research assistantships, the provision of HDR student travel grants (5 in the past 6 years), and the provision of 50% funding for two HDR scholarships.
UOW also provided cash support for the development of a successful bid for the NSW OEH bushfire risk management hub, and a multi-million dollar purpose-built Ecological Research Centre funded through an ARC LIEF grant.
We facilitated engagement between researchers and end users with direct funding through a UOW research strength (the Institute for Conservation Biology and Environmental Management, 2010-2014), and more recently, a faculty research cluster (the Centre for Sustainable Ecosystem Solutions, 2015 onwards). Notably, this cluster also supports other high-impact research, including research on weed and locust management (informing the Australian Plague Locust Commission), and Antarctic environmental protection (informing the Australian Antarctic Division, the Commonwealth Department of Environment and Energy, and the United Nations Environment Program).
In addition, we supported CERMB research impact through the provision of facilities (e.g. laboratory and office accommodation, equipment and vehicle usage, operational funds, administrative support for staff, grants and commercial research projects). Support provided by this partnership arrangement has provided a basis for further development of a network of research and utilisation of research products by other national and international partners (e.g. Commonwealth, Victorian and Northern Territory governments, United States Geological Survey and the European Union). We achieved this by wide ranging acquisition of contract funding (e.g. government agencies) and competitive grant funding (e.g. ARC, NSW Environmental Trusts, Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, $5 million), which enabled CERMB to employ >20 staff and supervise > 5 HDR students, with 5 HDR students co supervised by collaborators from NSW OEH. CERMB is therefore a UOW model of how collaboration between government and a university can successfully leverage an initial investment to expand and apply targeted environmental research to solve problems of fundamental importance to society.
CERMB is directly engaged with a national spectrum of end users via Advisory forums reporting to Project End User leaders and associated steering committees and mandated presentations at the annual Australian Fire Authorities Council (AFAC) conferences. Formal evidence of engagement with major stakeholders and end users is provided through the compilation of major project reports (>10 since 2007) to: the Commonwealth Government (e.g., Attorney-General’s Department), Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, State Governments (e.g. Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, NSW Rural Fire Service, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service), international collaborators (e.g. EU FUME project), and formal presentations at end user attended events.
Our CERMB researchers have been invited to participate in and provide expert advice to formal inquiries (e.g. 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission Expert Panel on Land Management) and review committees (e.g. Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries 4 expert review committees on the Bushfire Reform Process). The formal processes mandated in our research contracts with key end users include specific details of methods for translation of research into practice.
We actively facilitate the publicity of environmental research to expand our networking opportunities and inform the public of research findings with real world impact. For example, to provide up-to-date and accurate advice on bushfire hazards and risk mitigation to the general public, CERMB researchers have regularly appeared on local, national and international media (including regular articles in ‘The Conversation’). We also showcased research breakthroughs in key UOW publications (e.g. the Research and Innovation magazine, ’40 Years of Impact’ and ‘Women of Impact’), and via interactive public events (e.g. ‘UOW Big Ideas Festival’).
Associated research included:
EFFECTIVENESS OF FIRE MANAGEMENT: included empirical analysis of historical fire maps, focussing on fire spread, area and severity, and research using fire simulation (computer experiments). Risk estimation and mapping was approached by combining results from empirical studies, and by simulation. Similarly, research on effects of climatic change and other future influences progressed via use of multiple methodologies, including use of climate modelling, fire simulations and wide ranging analyses of empirical data.
SMOKE: research matched remotely sensed smoke plumes to state air-quality monitoring data, and involved collaboration with the Office of Environment and Heritage and the University of Tasmania. Fuel moisture was mapped by combining satellite imagery with physical plant moisture models, collaborating with Western Sydney University. Preparedness of the public and fore managers was researched using expert workshops and a collaboration with the company ‘Bayesian Intelligence’.
ECOLOGICAL RESEARCH: Often the focus of postgraduate projects, with clear applied aims for fire, biodiversity, carbon management. Many are undertaken in close collaboration with land management agencies (e.g. projects on logging and burning in state forests).
UOW researchers included Ross Bradstock, Owen Price, Trent Penman, Hamish Clarke, Luke Collins, Michael Bedward, Penny Watson, Meaghan Jenkins, and Chris Gordon.
1. Bradstock, R, Penman, T, Boer, M, Price, O, Clarke, H (2014) Divergent responses of fire to recent warming and drying across south-eastern Australia Global Change Biology 20, 1214-1228.
2. Bradstock, RA, Cary, GJ, Davies, I, Lindenmayer, DB, Price, O, Williams, RJ (2012) Wildfires, fuel treatment and risk mitigation in Australian eucalypt forests: insights from landscape-scale simulation. Journal of Environmental Management 105, 66-75.
3. Collins, L, Bradstock, RA, Tasker, EM, Whelan, RJ (2012) Impact of fire regimes, logging and topography on hollows in fallen logs in eucalypt forest of south eastern Australia. Biological Conservation 149, 23-31.
4. Gordon, CE, Price, OF, Denham, A, Tasker, EM (2017) Acacia response to high severity wildfire: implications for fire hazard and conservation management. Science of the Total Environment 575, 858–868.
5. Penman, TD, Bradstock, RA, Price, O (2014) Reducing wildfire risk to urban developments: simulation of cost-effective fuel treatment solutions in south eastern Australia Environmental Modelling and Software 52, 166-175.
6. Price, OF, Borah, R, Bradstock, R, Penman, T (2015) An empirical wildfire risk analysis: the probability of a fire spreading to the urban interface in Sydney, Australia. International Journal of Wildland Fire 24, 597-606.
7. Price, OF, Bradstock, RA (2011) Quantifying the influence of fuel age and weather on the annual extent of unplanned fires in the Sydney region of Australia. International Journal of Wildland Fire 20, 142-151.
8. Price, OF, Williamson, GJ, Henderson, SB, Johnston, F, Bowman, DJMS (2012) The relationship between landscape fire activity from Modis Hotspots and particulate pollution levels in Australian cities. Plos One 7, e47327.
9. Sawyer, R, Bradstock, R, Bedward, M, Morrison, RJ (2017) Fire intensity drives post-fire temporal pattern of soil carbon accumulation in Australian fire-prone forests. Science of the Total Environment 610-611, 1113-1124.
10. Thomas, PB, Watson, PJ, Bradstock, RA, Penman, TD, Price, OF (2014) Modelling litter fine fuel dynamics across climate gradients in eucalypt forests of south-eastern Australia Ecography 37, 827–837.