ARC Linkage funds research on early warning system for bushfires

Bushfire scene

The Federal Government has announced new funding for Western Sydney University researchers to develop a system for reliably forecasting the potential for bushfires.

An Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage grant worth over $500,000 has been awarded for the project: ‘Forecasting live fuel moisture content, the on/off switch for forest fire.’ Additional funding support for this Linkage Project is provided by The NSW Rural Fire Service, NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment and the ACT Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate.

The project will form part of the NSW Bushfire Risk Management Research Hub and is co-led by Dr Rachael Nolan – an Early Career Researcher of the Fire Research Group within the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment at Western Sydney University – and Dr Marta Yebra – a Senior Lecturer within the Fenner of Environment & Society and Research School of Aerospace, Mechanical, and Environmental Engineering at the Australian National University.

The project brings together a team of experts and industry partners from Western Sydney University, Australian National University; The University of Lleida (Spain); NSW Rural Fire Service; Department of Planning, Industry and Environment; and ACT Parks and Conservation.

The Linkage Project builds on earlier work at HIE and ANU that focused on predicting the moisture content of live forest fuels using a combination of satellite remote sensing technology and gridded weather data.

“What we have developed so far is a methodology for monitoring whether the conditions in bushlands across the state are primed for large, catastrophic fires – of the level that Australia is currently experiencing,” says Dr Nolan.

“However, until now, our models could, at best, show what the conditions in bushlands were a few days ago. With this new funding, we will be able to take a significant leap ahead, and advance our research to the point where we will be able to combine near-real time monitoring through remote sensing with physically-based models to provide medium range forecasts of these conditions into the future.”

In announcing the funding, Minister for Education Dan Tehan said the research is of national interest.

“Accurately forecasting the presence of dry forest fuels will help us better predict the likelihood of major bushfires, which will help greatly in bushfire prevention and mitigation, leading to saved lives and saved property,” Mr Tehan said.

The ARC’s prestigious Linkage program is designed to promote national and international research partnerships and transfer knowledge, skills and ideas.

Professor Deborah Sweeney, Deputy Vice-Chancellor & Vice President (Research & Innovation), congratulated the research team on their success.

“Through this Linkage Project, the research team will be able to develop long-term strategic research alliances, and will be contributing to advancing knowledge on an issue that has the potential to provide significant national economic, commercial, environmental and social benefits,” says Professor Sweeney.



Title: Dry forest fuels are a precursor of large bushfires.

Description: This research aims to develop, for the first time, a model to reliably forecast the moisture content of live fuels (e.g. the foliage and fine branches of shrubs and trees). This will be achieved by combining (i) satellite-derived estimates of live fuel moisture content, (ii) forecasts of soil moisture, and (iii) plant physiological responses to soil dryness. Forecasts of live fuel moisture content will deliver an early warning system of the risk of bushfires. These forecasts will also facilitate improved planning of prescribed burns: if fuels are too dry there is a risk of burns escaping, conversely, if fuels are too wet there is a risk that burns will fail to meet objectives.

Partner organisations: NSW Rural Fire Service; Office of Environment and Heritage NSW; Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate – Departmental.

Total awarded budget: $524,027.00

The Fire Research Group, within the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment (HIE), is led by Associate Professor Matthias Boer. The Group’s Research Fellows are: Dr Hamish Clarke, Dr Anne Griebel, and Dr Rachael Nolan.

Through the Fire Research Group at HIE, Western Sydney University is a partner in the NSW Bushfire Risk Management Research Hub – a $4M consortium of four universities led by the University of Wollongong and funded by the NSW Government’s Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, and working closely with the NSW Rural Fire Service and NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Dr Rachael Nolan’s existing research – which is focused on developing models of forest flammability due to dynamics in fuel loads and moisture content, and quantifying fire effects on carbon storage and sequestration in forests and woodlands – is funded by the NSW Bushfire Risk Management Research Hub.

In collaboration with the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires (CERMB) at the University of Wollongong, the Fire Research Group at HIE works across a broad range of fire research topics, including fire risk management, climate change and modelling of (future) fire regimes, with funding from the Australian Research Council, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre (CRC) and other industry partners.


14 January 2020

David Thompson, Research Media Officer

Image credit: Unsplash (Michael Held)