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Scion’s growing fire toolkit has proven track record

FEATURES: Fire NZ, May 2015

Grant Pearce is one of New Zealand’s leading fire specialists, whose research is embedded in the nation’s fire behaviour models, including calculating a fire’s rate of spread, intensity and flame length.

These models help determine how many people should be on stand-by over a long weekend, what equipment might be needed on a call out and how rural fires in different locations might play out.

Scion RFRP’s Fire Behaviour Toolkit, a smartphone-based calculator is now used across the country by fire fighters and fire managers and farmers planning controlled burn-offs, alerting them to a raft of conditions and the potential spread path of fire.

The kit evolved from a basic field manual with a series of lookup tables that ultimately evolved into a PC-based calculator and then moved to mobile. Weather and wind conditions still need to be manually input. 

Work on automatically pulling in essential data from field weather stations stalled two years ago when the New Zealand Fire Service, National Rural Fire Authority and NIWA began developing a new fire weather system.

Meanwhile Scion began developing the Fire Danger Today cellphone smart app, now in its early release stages, designed to alert people about fire risk based on their location. Some of the research is being done in collaboration with Tait Communications.

Reducing rural risk

A prototype, in the process of getting a final sign off, is geared for campers, travellers and holiday makers who may not know the fire risk in the environment they find themselves. The app connects into NIWA’s new fire weather system extracting real time information from the closest weather station, based on the GPS position of the smartphone, providing fire danger alerts and appropriate advice to users.

Pearce would like to see the capabilities of Fire Danger Today merged with the Fire Behaviour Toolkit with automated data collection. “Ultimately it would be really nice to bring the two applications together.”

Scion provides the science then outsources to other specialists to develop the apps. “The real objective of our research is having accurate models that underpin these predictive relationships for fire and packaging them up into tools to make that information useful,” says Pearce.

Another tool in the mix is the Prometheus Fire Growth Simulation Model, a 2D version of the fire behaviour calculator which helps determine the likely spread of a fire over time based on geographical information systems (GIS).

Behaviour model refined Prometheus, a tool for fire managers and specialists, originated in Canada and was first deployed here about five years ago, with local fire behaviour models, types of fuels and other developments added over time. It was used in the wildfires at Onamalutu, on the outskirts of Blenheim, at the height of this summer’s fire season, where a blaze ripped through a pine plantation and threatened a number of homes.

“If you know the location of the fire, and the fuel types it’s burning in you can combine that with information on terrain and weather conditions, particularly wind speed and direction,” says Pearce. “The software runs a bunch of scenarios, based on those sort of conditions, allowing you to change wind direction and speed, to see the impact on fire perimeters at maybe 30 minute, one hour or three hour intervals.”

A few fire managers have experimented with it, including the ‘what if’ scenarios, and it’s been tested against the data from a range of historic fires and proved fairly accurate. “It’s definitely proved its worth,” says Pearce.

Veronica Clifford from Scion’s Rural Fire Research Group, an expert at predicting fire behaviour and a rural volunteer firefighter was among those battling to bring the Onamalutu forest fire under control, as part of the National Incident Management Team (NIMT).

She used the latest weather forecasts and taking into account the lie of the land, vegetation and wind direction briefed management and fire crews about likely fire behaviour in what was described as “a complex fire with multiple fuel types on rough terrain”.

Her real time advice, assisted by the mobile apps, was used to determine where to concentrate fire fighters and aerial support with a particular eye on if and when evacuations might be necessary. “Our research focuses on understanding how fire behaves in various conditions, and the factors that affect public and firefighter safety. Using the tools we have developed in the field and seeing their positive effects is very satisfying,” said Clifford about her first multi-day wildfire. 

She continued to be involved with research to demonstrate what damage might have occurred without fire suppression as part of the operational review.

Looking for suite spot

Last year 45 New Zealand fire managers were trained up in the use of Prometheus, including firefighters from Canada, where it originated. “It’s out there now and available for a much wider group of people to use.” Pearce says there’s strong interest in these kinds of tools and the Canadians in particular are “definitely pleased with the enhancements that we’ve made.”

Scion RFRP is keeping a close watch on an international evaluation of products, including Prometheus, to see which does a better job across a variety of circumstances and which is most appropriate for wider deployment “All of them have good features and some negatives. Some have the ability to put in firefighting activities. Prometheus doesn’t, although there’s the possibility of creating a suite from the different models.”

Scion RFRP will continue to enhance its own tools and benefit from the global open collaboration in fire prevention research. “Every-body is looking to find what the best approach is internationally.”

Taking the extra steps toward automating existing tools and integrating others however is restrained by Scion’s basic budget. “When you’ve got a limited resource you can only split it so many ways. We’re committed to a programme of research at the moment, so that uses available funding.”

While prevention can save a considerable amount of money in lost land, forest, buildings, tools, homes and even lives, Pearce says it’s a continual struggle proving that when applying for funding. Even undertaking a cost-benefit analysis of existing, enhanced or proposed tools in fire prevention and firefighting activities, requires investment.

He’d like to re-purpose Prometheus’ predictive modeling for example to compare data to illustrate what could have happened and the value of what has been saved through the various Scion RFRP tools.

By Keith Newman

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