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Incoporating satellite imagery in bushfire prevention

An image showing a map of Australia coloured to show fuel moisture content, based on a legend showing a fuel moisture content gradient from red (less than 50%) to green (more than 150%).

The Fuel Moisture Content of Australia on the 28th of July 2013.

Collaborative work between researchers from The Australian National University and NCI is leading to new understandings about bushfires and bushfire prevention.

Dr Marta Yebra from the Bushfires and Natural Hazards Collaborative Research Centre is using satellite images to understand the fire fuel present in the environment. With optical data from NASA’s MODIS satellite, Dr Yebra can know the moisture content of vegetation in the entire country and how it might react to a bushfire.

Her work is being developed in partnership with various state environmental and land management agencies. The aim for the end of the research is to release to the agencies a complete product, accessible online, that lets them understand the fire risk situation at a local level.

“The idea,” says Dr Yebra, “would be to provide this product to the land managers to plan prescribed burning for example, as a tool for fire risk mitigation.” The data provides a resolution of 500 metres nationwide, which gives a useful overview of vegetation conditions before, during and after a fire.

Typically, running the algorithms to understand the vegetation is what takes a large part of a researcher’s time. Originally, the algorithms required to get this detail from the data took 3 hours to run, but following optimisation done by NCI expert staff, the same algorithms now take only 10 minutes. Because 18 repeats of the calculations are required to cover the whole country, and a new complete data set needs to be analysed every 8 days, the huge increase in speed has made a tremendous difference to the research.

Now, Dr Yebra is hoping that the improved knowledge of vegetation moisture will be used for fire danger predictions. She says “The main benefit would be to get this into the new fire danger rating system which is under development. The system right now is very empirical and remains largely unchanged since its development in the 60s. The intention of a new system would be to incorporate contemporary science that more accurately predicts bushfire risk and is physically based. Our satellite-based product will provide essential information about vegetation condition.”

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