Bushfire computer modelling at Wright Brothers’ level

Bushfire computer modelling at Wright Brothers’ level

21 October 2013

published by www.abc.net.au

Australia — Computer modelling of bushfire behaviour is at the equivalent stage of development as the Wright Brothers using bike parts to fly, says Professor David Bowman.

Professor Bowman works at the University of Tasmania in Environmental Change Ecology and he says while computer modelling is a handy tool, it’s still in very early development and can’t be relied on alone.

“Models are a tool. They’re very useful for firefighters tactically, but they’ve got to be understood of being very crude approximations of a very complicated system,” says Prof Bowman.

“Most of the input data is very crude. Much of it is missing. The processes inside these models are poorly understood and the predications are prone to wild error.”

The Tasmanian Bushfire Report for 2013 criticised the Tasmania Fire Service for not acting on computer modelling that predicted the bushfire would hit Dunalley 24 hours before it did.

Prof Bowman says the current computer modelling is the equivalent of the Wright Brothers flying a few metres on modified bicycle parts and it can’t be trusted like a modern day passenger plane can be.

“The models that we’re using are fairly Wright Brothers scale. They are certainly not reliable in the same was a passenger liner is reliable.

“I spend my life thinking about bushfires and thinking about the complexity of bushfires.

“I work closely with modellers, I work with people who understand fires, I assure you there are an enormous number of unknowns and the killer is the [human] interaction.”

Prof Bowman says computer modelling is a useful tactical tool when combined with local knowledge and experience to make sense of it.

“In the science of this, we’re still understanding fire behaviour, there’s much to be learnt. It’s not a mature science.”

Longer term computer modelling, that looks at the risk of certain buildings and areas to burning down during a bushfire, is a tool Prof Bowman says should be talked about more and used more to help communities prepare before a fire starts.

He says many Tasmanians are in denial of how much at risk their houses really are.

“In Tasmania, I would hazard a guess, many people are not aware, particularly the people who live in Hobart, that they’re in a very high risk bushfire area.

“They’re thinking they’re in a suburb and they’re immune from this.

“They’re not immune from it. Under certain conditions many areas are actually quite susceptible to bushfire threat.”

Prof Bowman says he believes the TFS did the best they could with the fast changing bushfire conditions at the time. He says computer modelling can’t handle the fast pace of a rapidly changing bushfire, and local knowledge and experience are the best thing to rely on those situations.

This Wednesday is Bushfire Awareness Day on 936 and ABC Northern Tasmania.


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