Market Access and Risk Management - Impact Stories

IO5 – Protect and enhance market access and improve risk management in the forest industry including forest health and preparedness for biosecurity incursions, fire and climate change

Innovative fire behaviour tools prove their worth

ar2015-KPI_9_a.jpgAs a result of over 20 years of collaborative research between Scion and New Zealand’s National Rural Fire Authority (NRFA), rural fire managers have access to a range of innovative fire behaviour tools that have been developed or adapted specifically for New Zealand conditions.

These were put to the test in February by Scion fire scientist Veronica Clifford. Veronica served as technical specialist for the National Incident Management Team deployed to manage wildfires that swept through 600 hectares of forest at Onamalutu, in Marlborough.

The fire destroyed forest and farms, and threatened numerous homes and properties. It took the efforts of 15 aircraft, 180 fire fighters plus an NRFA national incident team to bring the fire under control, with an estimated cost of $1.4 million.

Using the Prometheus fire behaviour model and the New Zealand Fire Behaviour Toolkit, Veronica was able to provide fire weather forecasts, and fire behaviour and growth predictions for the Marlborough/Kaikoura Rural Fire Authority (MKRFA). These predictions formed the basis of operational decisions made around resource deployment and possible evacuations.

“By taking into account weather conditions, the lie of the land and vegetation, and the way they interact, we can go a long way to predicting the behaviour of most fires,” says Veronica. “I used up-to-date weather forecasts for the area and other information to predict what the fire was likely to do over the next 12-hour period. Then I briefed management and the fire crews at twice daily shift changes.”

Richard McNamara, Principal Rural Fire Officer for the MKRFA said having Veronica on the team meant fire crews received real time advice on a complex fire, with multiple fuel types on rough terrain.

“We used Veronica’s predictions to make decisions as to where to concentrate firefighters and aerial support, and when evacuations might be necessary.

“The wind changing direction was especially concerning. When we knew a southerly change was on its way, Veronica and I tracked its progress closely. The fire crews were working amongst tall timber at the time and there was a risk of weakened trees toppling when the wind changed.”

Following a post-event review of the fires, Veronica used Prometheus to demonstrate the likely behaviour and magnitude of the fire without suppression, and illustrate the “values saved” by the firefighting efforts.

Prometheus is Canadian software that has been adapted for use in New Zealand and validated against a number of historical New Zealand wildfires. The model can be used for a range of applications including forecasting wildfire growth, providing post-fire support for wildfire investigations, and planning prescribed burns. It can also be used to conduct “what if” scenarios to support readiness and reduction planning as part of the Strategic & Tactical Fire Management Planning process.

In the case of the Onamalutu fire, it was used to develop evacuation plans by identifying threatened communities and possible egress.

The Prometheus model was also used in a post-fire review of a wildfire that threatened the South Canterbury township of Twizel in January. This demonstrated the effectiveness of fire suppression efforts taken and the values saved by comparing actual fire spread with modelled potential fire spread. Results from this modelling have sparked interest from the community to establish a green break around the town for future fire protection.

“We take a hands-on approach to fire research,” says Veronica, who is also a volunteer rural firefighter. “We work closely with fire managers, rural fire authorities and other research organisations to ensure the models and tools we develop are relevant and validated by rigorous science. The results of this collaborative research help support the critical decisions made by rural fire managers.”

The Prometheus adaptation project was initially funded by DOC in 2009-10, followed by a 10-day secondment by Veronica at DOC to further investigate the use of Prometheus for strategic planning purposes.

In 2010, Scion’s Rural Fire Research Team trained DOC staff to use Prometheus. Last year a further 46 New Zealand fire personnel were trained in Prometheus with fire managers using it for a range of operational and strategic planning purposes. Due to ongoing demand, Scion will be continuing to run training and refresher courses to ensure there are sufficient skilled operators around the country.

Collaborators / Partners: Alberta Sustainable Resources & Development; Heartland Software Solutions (Canada)
Investment: Rural fire users including DOC, NRFA, NZFS, LGNZ, NZFOA, NZ Defence Force
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