Can’t ignore early warning technology

Can’t ignore early warning technology

7 October 2009

published by

Australia — On February 6 I flew to Portugal to attend a whaling conference at the behest of Peter Garrett. The following day the worst bushfires in Australian history left 173 people dead and shattered the lives of thousands more. I watched it unfold on British Sky News. It was horrifying and gut-wrenching.

The interim report of the subsequent Victorian royal commission on bushfires, although written in unemotional bureaucratese, is a grim document. It should be the first step in ensuring a tragedy of this nature never happens again, or if it does the extent of damage and loss of life is dramatically reduced.

The report, with about 50 recommendations, covers almost every aspect of the bushfires, including fuel reduction, prescribed burning, evacuation, refuges, state emergency services, economic cost and fire warnings. The recommendation that interests me most is 11.27.

“The commonwealth was asked to provide information on its capacity to provide facts, data, images by means of sentinel bushfire monitoring, satellite imagery, infrared technology, mapping tools or other means.”

Put simply, the commonwealth has a significant role to play in prevention and not just the cure. That is particularly important if the experts are correct and an even worse summer awaits us.

Allow me to declare an interest. Shortly after I returned from Portugal, old friends stopped at my rural abode in Bungendore for a cuppa after visiting Canberra, where they had introduced ACT emergency service bureaucrats to the latest and the best fire prevention technology, Firewatch. Describing it as the best technology for fire prevention is admittedly a big call, but one that is not idly made. Firewatch was developed by the German Aerospace Institute for NASA’s Mars Pathfinder mission. Similar but inferior systems have a smaller range (10km), are much more expensive, or work for only up to eight hours a day when the satellite passes overhead.

Firewatch, on the other hand, is tower-based (rather than satellite-based), has a range of 15km-40km and automatically rotates through 360 degrees every six minutes. It is equipped with night vision, so it works round the clock. It can detect fires faster than the human eye and needs to spot only smoke (rather than flames) for the purpose. It can detect wind speed and direction as well as temperature, which enables it to pinpoint the fire and identify its direction. It can also detect 16,384 shades of grey and tell the difference between smoke, cloud and mist.

You would think the various state and territory emergency services would have been falling over each other to check out Firewatch. Not so. Since February 2006, Firewatch executives have knocked on their doors and discovered they were not interested. One executive said he “didn’t care if bushfires started as long as they were not near the urban interface, as carbon dioxide emissions were someone else’s problem. If fire started to come close to population centres the public always phoned in and reported the fire”, and that was good enough for him.

Another Rural Fire Services executive claimed that giving volunteers accurate information about the scale and location of a bushfire to enable the right resources to be deployed would “take all the fun and adventure out of the challenge”.

The common thread that ran through discussions with the various state government departments was they were not interested in early detection, only more money for helicopters, fire trucks and other equipment. No one questions their enthusiasm or dedication, but they are fighting the last war, not the nextone.

The big questions are what will Firewatch achieve and at what cost. It has been operating in Germany for eight years, leading to a 92percent reduction in the area burned. Australia, with zillions of explosive eucalypts, is not Germany but if Firewatch is half as good as claimed, countless lives and properties can be saved. It is being tested in France, Portugal, Estonia, the Czech Republic, The Netherlands, Mexico and the US.

The cost will depend on the number of units required but Firewatch will primarily be restricted to areas where dense Australian bush intersects with urban and semi-urban living. The equipment can be purchased outright or leased for a 10-year period at an annual cost of about $90,000 for each unit.

The total cost will depend on the degree of protection required. It’s worth taking into consideration the Australian insurance industry estimate that the Victorian bushfires cost it $1.12billion. Add government and individual losses and we are looking at more than $2bn.

Then there are carbon emissions. CSIRO estimates that the February fires released the equivalent of one year’s industrial production. Under the Kyoto Protocol, carbon emissions from bushfires were excluded from a nation’s total output; that will not be the case after Copenhagen.

Most of us lack the expertise to assess Firewatch’s claims and no one expects governments to invest millions without extensive trials. Not to trial Firewatch, however, would be criminal negligence.

Fortunately, despite the state departments’ lack of interest, matters are moving on the federal front. Fran Bailey, Liberal MP for McEwen, whose electorate covers the area where 169 of the 173 bushfire deaths occurred, was introduced to Firewatch and immediately flew to Germany and spent four days studying it. She says that, having investigated various other forms of early detection, she is absolutely convinced the hundreds of millions spent by the German aerospace industry have led to a state-of-the-art technology that works. “None of the other systems came within a bull’s roar of Firewatch.”

Bailey has badgered the Prime Minister to order trials this summer and have them assessed by independent engineers.

Bill Shorten, one of the brightest stars in the Labor firmament and the parliamentary secretary for Victorian bushfire reconstruction, quickly recognised Firewatch’s potential.

Shorten’s involvement ensures that those who must make the final decision to trial Firewatch, at a cost of $2m to $4m, will have the facts placed before them.

If trials are to be conducted this summer for Firewatch or any other system, then decisions need to be madesoon.

Firewatch has the potential to dramatically reduce the number and scope of Australian bushfires and, over the years, save thousands of lives and billions of dollars.

It must be hoped the Rudd government doesn’t miss the opportunity to give Firewatch a chance.

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