New South Wales posts map showing predicted spread of bushfires

Comparing firefighting in North America and Australia

When a group of firefighters from North America arrived in Australia earlier this year to assist with an exceptionally large number of bushfires, one of them was quoted by a local media outlet as saying, “I understand it’s pretty traumatic for you guys, but it’s something we deal with – it’s our comfort zone”. It was not clear to whom the firefighter was speaking, civilians or in-country firefighters, but it struck me as a little odd and could be interpreted as patronizing from someone who had been in the country for less than a day.

Make no mistake, Australians have been dealing with vegetation fires as long as the North Americans have, and their blazes can be just as calamitous as those on the other side of the equator. Firefighters on both continents can learn from each other. From my limited vantage point 8,000 miles away it is clear that Aussies do a lot of things very well, especially designing their fire engines and keeping the public informed about  the status of active fires.

In the United States if a citizen needs current information about a wildfire how do they get it? The local sheriff, local fire department, or a state agency? It makes a difference about where to look if the fire is on federal land, state protected land, city, county, national or state park. If they try social media, what account? InciWeb sometimes has information about wildfires managed by federal agencies, but not all. Information about individual fires may not have been updated for 12 to 18 hours, however some incident management teams are better than others.NSW RFS Twitter And evacuations are managed by local law enforcement. When someone is threatened by a rapidly spreading wildfire they don’t have time to randomly check an alphabet soup of acronyms on dozens of web sites or social media accounts, even if they know the names, handles, or web addresses.

The map below is an example of something done very well in Australia. In New South Wales the Rural Fire Service distributes a great deal of current information to the public through Twitter, Facebook, and their web site.

NSW RFS fire spread projection map
From the NSW RFS:
Advice – Green Wattle Creek (Wollondilly LGA)
Extreme Fire Danger is forecast for this fireground on Thursday 19th December 2019. Conditions will be dangerous due to high temperatures, strong and gusty winds and low humidity. This potential fire spread prediction map shows the communities that may come under threat from embers or fire fronts. Conditions are then forecast to worsen again on Saturday.

It would be very unusual for a firefighting agency in the U.S. to distribute to the public a map, like the one above, that showed projections of fire spread of two major fires over the next 24 hours. Most agencies in the U.S. are hesitant to even publicly predict the general direction a fire will spread, let alone a map showing the location and extent of where the fire is expected to be in a matter of hours.

The technology to produce maps like this exists, but depending on the accuracy needed, it can require a supercomputer to crunch the numbers. In September the Orange County Fire Authority in California began a 150-day pilot program to use and evaluate the Fire Integrated Real-Time Intelligence System (FIRIS). It utilizes a supercomputer at the University of California San Diego running WIFIRE spread projections based on fire perimeter data collected by an aircraft. The output estimates where the fire will be in the next six hours. It has been run on real fires a few times, with the latest being the Cave Fire at Santa Barbara, California.

Another area where the NSW RFS excels is posting aerial videos of active fires. The agency frequently puts them on Twitter and Facebook, giving the public a general idea of how actively the fire is burning. Many of them show air tankers and helicopters dropping water on the fires, showing taxpayers how their money is being spent.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

9 thoughts on “New South Wales posts map showing predicted spread of bushfires”

  1. “In the United States if a citizen needs current information about a wildfire how do they get it?”

    i listen to my scanner when a fire is near. it is the best way to know what is happening.

    and i WISH cal-fire would offer classes on how to “stay and defend”. yes, i KNOW evacuating is job one, but in case circumstances prohibit that, despite all the fire preparation/mitigation work i have done here, i feel very ill equipped to “shelter in place”. yes, i have hoses, pumps, 2500 gallons of stored water, backup power for my well pump, plumbed under eave sprayers, window shutters and yet i feel 100% ignorant of what fighting a fire is like and how to do it as safely as possible.

    1. inciweb.
      I think that was a bit arch to say that when the firefighter was probably trying to assure someone they are ready to help. you weren’t part of the conversation and had no context, so you put your emotional assumption out there rather than report.

      YOU are not the story.

  2. Usual arrogant comment by someone who is ill-informed. Does wonders for international relations.
    Up-to-date hour-by-hour easily accessible information is critical. Wildland fires move much faster now. TV news often seems self-indulgent. I have covered fires on-scene as a working photojournalist, side-by-side firemen in the midst of all h—- breaking loose, and then home a few hours later watching the news where the broadcaster is wearing their yellow nomex jacket standing in the safety of a parking lot several miles from the the fire, and providing such irrelevant information I wonder who they think their audience is. Homeowners and the public in the vicinity of the fires have three questions: “Where is it? When do I have to leave? When can I come home?” Shouldn’t be that hard with all the technology available to provide those answers on a timely basis. If the Aussies can do it…

  3. A friend is a fire fighter in Pierce County, Washington. He said that he and the Americans he was with did not like working in Oz – they’re just not used to the type of vegetation or the fauna that lives in it. He also said that the Aussies were laughing themselves silly and he admitted it was fair play because he and his team had given them a hard time because they didn’t like bears charging out of the smoke when they were in the US. Guess it’s what you’re used to – no excuse for thinking every fire is the same and refusing to learn from a new experience though. And yes, I’m sitting here monitoring the fires. I think we’re out of the immediate danger area, but we have to keep an eye on things because of the smoke and burning leaves etc. Over 400.000 hectares burned so far in the Blue Mountains.

  4. I first worked for the Australian Capital Territory as an expert witness in the matter of the 2003 Canberra Fire Storm. The ACT fire service had not lost a house since 1952, the year I was born. Over 500 burned in that storm. The ACT did a brilliant job of warning the public and keeping people informed, right up until they could not due to antiquated equipment and decades of getting by neither making capital improvements in equipment or communications or in hiring and training their great fire forces. At the same time, their volunteer forces dropped from a high of over 70,000 VFC personnel in 1952 to several hundred in 2003. Australia doesn’t stand second to anyone as a bush fire force. They prove it every day. They don’t have the gold-plated organizations we do with the massive artificial cities that spring up overnight to provide showers and steaks (thank heavens we do), but they have the same gutsy touch people we do, and lots of them. They face the same equilibrium of vegetative growth that we do and the same rapid conversion of that excess vegetation to carbon. Eucalypts are hell. Ask California. I’m glad we get to go help. We ought to suit up, show up, shut up, and do the next indicted right thing.

  5. We could learn a lot from our Aussie mates. Having been a member of the 2nd US Contingent to be mobilized to Australia, I can base this on personal experience. One of most valuable aspects of public safety that the US could use is the Australian model of evacuation.
    It would require a degree of honesty and public engagement that Americans would need to adapt to. In many communities in the US, preemptive evacuation due to the mere presence of catastrophic fire weather conditions could save lives. We should strongly consider it.

  6. having followed pretty closely, u,s, wildfires over the internet for the past 4 years, ive come to get used to the terms of the branch. living in norway, wet and windy most of the time with some grass and peatfires a couple of times in a year, usually not more that 1 or 2 acres, im kind of novice to it all. im not a firefighter, but its the raw and brutal realities on human and nature that kind of fascinates me .
    i think us agencies, when searching in depth , comes very well out on information and especially the numbers and data of burnt acreage etc are well done.

    being even more novice on aussie bushfires, what strikes me most is the lack of a governmental head source of bushfireinformation. i know that almost everything in australia happens on state level, but here the quality of information are all from naysay/terrible e.g northern territories and queensland, to the best in the class new south wales.

    fire size is the data that tells me most about a fire, both in human terms,but also economically and environmetally. NT are the state with the longest fire season with a fire burning every day, so they might not find it nescesarry to mind about it, but QLD that do have more frequent fires and a prolonged fireseason, with vast populated areas in or near the bush, well the least they could do on their site is to inform on size, if you blow up the size, then you might also blast the buble of ignorance among non rekconing blatant citizens.

    so if any aussie fire chief or people with power should goog to this comment, size matters, and i hope this will be attended to on the incident lists in the years to come. i know that i wouldve run if i knew the size of a fire being 10000 hectars, more than the 1 or 2 units at the scene information given today.

  7. Refer back to the December 10 article on How the Media covers fires. Its not the media’s fault, its the fault of the Fire Service for not providing timely and accurate fire information. Its the fault of the Fire Service for not educating the media about correct terminology ( there is no US Forestry Service, etc.).
    Incident Commanders and PIO’s should realize that every fire is an opportunity for Fire Prevention and Education. There is no excuse for the sloppy way our fire information is disseminated. The old Hot List website was a valuable tool. Hopefully a forward looking Agency will read this article and emulate the Aussie program.

  8. Wow arm chair quarterbacking by no one who is here or knows the context of the conversation. Make sure your house isn’t glass while throwing rocks. Taken way out of context and nothing but fantastic relationships now and here on out.

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