In January 2003 the most severe bushfires currently known on record ravaged Australia’s capital city, destroying over 500 homes, claiming four lives and causing over $300 million in damages — and earning Canberra the title of the nation’s bushfire capital.
These devastating events have been a harsh awakening for residents and emergency services personnel alike as the city’s bushland terrain means Canberra is at a high level of risk when it comes to bushfires.
The ACT’s Emergency Services Agency (ACT ESA) is getting ahead of the game with a state-of-the-art technology-based solution — the Automated Bushfire Attack Level (BAL) tool — that assigns accurate bushfire risk ratings to individual dwellings using Esri’s geospatial technology
Understanding the BAL of a dwelling means that Australian homeowners, emergency services authorities, government agencies and planners can prepare for the potential impact a severe bushfire could have on lives and property and enable residents to make an informed decision based on their location and how they are likely to be affected by a bushfire.
This year at the nation’s annual fire and emergency services conference, AFAC18, ACT Emergency Services Commissioner Dominic Lane AFSM announced the release of this first-of-its-kind tool utilising world-class, advanced spatial technology to drastically reduce the loss of property and life in the event of a bushfire. With 16,000 property assessments completed in just one hour, the tool helps improve community preparedness for when an emergency strikes.
Commissioner Lane said providing Canberra residents and emergency responders with an accurate understanding of the bushfire risk facing properties before a fire strikes is an innovative approach in terms of emergency preparedness.
“The challenge for any homeowner or emergency services agency is how to take data and use it to inform planning or operational decisions, or in the worst-case scenario, immediate decisions in preparing their property or responding to a warning when faced with a severe bushfire,” Commissioner Lane said.
“In the past we have talked about people living in bushfire prone areas, now we are able to go to a greater level of detail, not only in terms of their location in a bushfire prone area, but the potential level of attack that could come onto their property in the event of a severe bushfire.”
Building on the latest focus for emergency management groups nationwide – preparedness – the BAL tool is an industry-leading example of bettering community-focused outcomes; giving emergency services agencies absolute precision at the household level in providing greater detail to homeowners and specificity of the level of attack that may come onto their property in the event of a bushfire.
By simply entering any address, the BAL tool instantly analyses information including vegetation density, building footprints and slope data, to provide a clear picture of where risks may lie for the property. Taking away the question of ‘should I stay, or should I go?’, the tool gives members of the community greater accountability for their own safety by placing the right tools in their hands to make strategically informed decisions for their family and their home.
ACT ESA Manager of Emergency Management, Risk, Spatial and Digital Services Nick Lheude said the Auto BAL tool acts as a significant step forward to helping reduce the risk of bushfires for Canberra’s residents.
“Helping the people of Canberra understand their risk is absolutely critical and is one of the key tasks of the ESA in preparing the community for bushfires,” Mr Lheude said. “With the automation of assessments with the BAL tool, for the first time, we are able to quantify the level of bushfire risk for properties street by street throughout Canberra.”
As a tool for ESA and the ACT government as a whole, the Auto BAL can be used by emergency responders, planners, construction managers and decision makers in relation to the release of land, to help make better planning and operational decisions, and is just one of the many ways the ACT ESA is using the broad range of spatial information available to them.
Esri Australia Public Safety Expert Mark Wallace said ArcGIS is one of the key tools that brings together volumes of data that can be turned into intelligence — useful information that can be shared within incident management teams and other agencies.
“The tool not only considers data sets such as the location of properties and vegetation but also dynamic data sets and feeds such as weather. Combining those together you end up with dynamic situational awareness,” Mr Wallace said.
“The benefits for government agencies come from the ability to share and collaborate amongst themselves and also with other organisations involved in emergency management such as community recovery, infrastructure and utilities,” he said.
With a powerful strategic direction toward the protection of life, property and the environment, the ACT ESA was guided by leading geographic software provider, Esri Australia in developing the tool utilising location-based analytics.
Drawing on laser-sharp LiDAR imagery, a 3D model of bushfire prone areas was created which allowed a comprehensive assessment of BAL consistent with the field processes detailed in the Australian Standard AS 3959:2009. The remote sensing method that uses a pulsed laser from an aircraft to measure variable distances to Earth, generates precise, 3D information about the shape of the landscape and its surface characteristics. In the ACT ESA’s case, LiDAR imagery is used to produce eight points per metre which is ideal for emergency services risk assessment, clearly identifying roof lines and tree canopies.
Through the ACT government’s program to provide high-quality LiDAR covering the entire territory, and the ability to take this data and generate a range of high-resolution, spatially accurate 3D products, the concept of automating Bushfire Attack Level (BAL) assessment was made a reality. The categories, from 12.5 KW/m2 through to ‘the flame zone’ – an area subject to direct flame impingement – are modelled on radiant heat in kilowatts per metre squared, and the results are displayed with different colours representing the five BAL risk categories. Having a comprehensive, consistent assessment allows the ACT ESA to better understand where levels of higher risk occur.
- Large-scale assessments: The ESA can now undertake large-scale assessments in minimal time and at a lower cost. The automated solution enables the agency to make estimations and judgements across the whole ACT. Instead of time-consuming individual and manual assessments, the new tool processes 16,000 assessments in one hour. Importantly, ESA can potentially quantify the impact of policy changes by quickly calculating the number of properties that might be affected, simply by modelling different options and assumptions.
- Consistent classifications: The automated tool empowers ESA to deliver a uniform assessment of BAL across the entire ACT.
- Mitigation advice for new constructions: The accuracy provided by the new tool may assist in how people build new houses in bushfire prone areas. By assessing vacant land, planners can ensure structures are positioned in a way that minimises the risk of damage in a fire. This makes the BAL tool, not just a useful assessment device but also an essential guide in the planning and approval process.
- Community education: Aided by the easy-to-understand 3D maps and colour-coded fire risk categories, the information delivered through the tool can guide community awareness and the development of bushfire prevention activities.
A safer future
With a history of devastating wildfires, ACT residents and emergency services personnel keep an ever-vigilant eye on the high-risk farmland, bush and national parks that surround them. Already seeing success in Canberra, looking into the future, the BAL tool will see emergency service experts from around the globe coming together to discuss the potential it holds on a global scale; from large-scale policy changes with the United Nations, all the way down to helping the workflow at each and every emergency services outlet.
“We know we have a really good way of dealing with the ever-growing and ever-present danger of bushfires so we hope to share this with other jurisdictions in Australia and also globally,” Commissioner Lane said. “The United Nations has signed up to the Sendai framework for risk reduction to reduce the loss of life from natural disasters. By using the Auto BAL technology as an example, we’re able to demonstrate as a nation that this is how we’re doing this to the rest of the world.”
From both a national and global perspective, this tool is a world-first, introducing new rigour, accuracy and consistency to how risk assessments are managed, and providing new insights —not only to authorities but individual members of the public as well.
For more information, go to www.esriaustralia.com.au/actesa