Australian bushfires generate huge interest in NZ

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Media coverage around the bushfires raging in New South Wales and Queensland generated significant interest here in NZ, not only from firefighters being deployed to help out, or those with families in or close to the fire areas, but also from NZ media around wildfire research.

Fire & Emergency New Zealand, the National Institure of Water & Atmospheric Research (NIWA) and Scion’s Rural Fire Research team were asked to provide comment on the Australian bushfires, and relevance to current and future wildfire risks here in NZ, including smoke impacts.

Expert reactions provided to the Science Media Centre were used in articles in the NZ Herald, Stuff and other outlets around the potential for similar wildfires here in NZ with climate change, and which regions are most at risk. Another article in the NZ Herald featured a description of what it’s like inside a bushfire.

Both Scion’s Tara Strand and Grant Pearce gave radio interviews on Newstalk ZB and Radio NZ. Grant also featured in a story on TVNZ’s Q+A programme on the bushfires and whether NZ is adequately prepared for future wildfires.

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Seasonal fire climate outlooks available again

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The first of the monthly seasonal fire danger outlooks for 2019/20 are now available, with the outlooks for each of the North and South Islands for December – February now available.

These provide a heads-up on how fire danger conditions are tracking in different parts of the country as we transition from spring into summer.

Based on information from both NIWA and MetService, as well as current fire danger conditions from Fire & Emergency New Zealand, these indicate that westerly airflows are likely to continue through December, bringing above normal temperatures for most, wetter conditions in western areas of the South Island, and drier than normal in northern and eastern areas. Fire dangers for December are expected on average to remain Low to Moderate for the West Coast, Southland and most of the North Island, but areas to keep a watch on for elevated fire risk are Gisborne, Hawkes Bay, Manawatu, Wairarapa, Marlborough, and parts of Canterbury and Otago. During periods of hot and windy weather, High or Extreme fire dangers are very likely.

The meteorologists are suggesting that this summer could be a summer of two halves, with potentially a change occurring around February that could mean a switching over of those areas currently wet becoming drier, and vice versa. Further information on this will be included in future fire climate outlook produced at the beginning of each month.

For those wanting to do further analysis, additional graphs comparing fire dangers (DC, BUI and CDSR) for each weather station are also available.

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Updated versions of Fire Behaviour Toolkit available

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This user-friendly software package incorporates the fuel and fire behaviour models developed by Scion’s Rural Fire Research group. The ‘NZ Fire Behaviour Toolkit’ is available in formats for PC, as well as Apple and Android smart devices. Versions have been updated recently to work with the latest operating systems.

The latest PC software update (v2.3.0.439) is now available from the NZ Fire Behaviour Toolkit page of the Rural Fire Research website.

This Windows PC version of the Toolkit is comprised of a number of separate modules, each of which was developed for different purposes and levels of use, including the Fire Behaviour Calculator, Fire Behaviour Worksheet, Firebreak Effectiveness and Fire Intensity/Flame Length calculators, Fire Behaviour Rules of Thumb and Resource Productivity guides.

The PC version also incorporates an electronic version of the Guide to New Zealand Fuels. This is a technical guide for selecting the most appropriate fuel type for fire behaviour predictions. It provides users with a better understanding of how the fire behaviour models for various fuel types differ from one another, and will therefore aid in making the correct selection of fuel types for fire behaviour predictions.

An updated User Guide is also available for this PC version which includes instructions on how to install the software and utilise the various modules: NZ Fire Behaviour Toolkit User Guide. More details on software requirements, including operating systems supported and additional set-up files that may be required, can be found in the User Guide and on the Toolkit webpage.

Apple and Android smart phone versions have also been updated. These contain the Fire Behaviour Calculator/Worksheet component of the Toolkit. For users who already have these installed, if these have not updated automatically go to the Apple iTunes or Google Play app stores. More details can be found on the Fire Behaviour Calculator app page.

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Two recent magazine articles on fire research

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Two further articles were produced recently on Scion’s extreme fire research.

The first, “Pigeon Valley fire – New methods put to the test”, was published in the August 2019 issue of NZ Tree Grower magazine. This describes the research being undertaken to develop real-time fire prediction tools, and how they were used to provide operational support during the February 2019 Pigeon Valley wildfire near Nelson.

The second, “Combating the growing fire risk”, was published in the Building Research Association of New Zealand’s (BRANZ) Build magazine. Given the magazine’s scope, this focussed on the risk of wildfires to homes in the rural-urban interface, and the home design considerations that can help protect people and homes. It also described how Scion is developing research tools to help communities and firefighters.

As they are produced, new media items such as those above are added to the Scion Rural Fire Research team’s website on the News & Events – Related Links: Media Items page. Check out what else has been added recently!

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Two new journal articles

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Members of Scion’s Fire research team have had two journal papers published recently.

A paper by Andrea Grant, Mary Hart and Lisa Langer on “Integrating volunteering cultures in New Zealand’s multi-hazard environment” was published in Australian Journal of Emergency Management. This discusses some of the challenges associated with volunteering in NZ’s multi-hazards environment. In particular, it focuses on approaches that support informal volunteering and contribute to the resilience of rural communities in NZ. This work forms part of Scion’s social fire research, and was supported through the Resilience to Nature’s Challenges National Science Challenge.

The second paper, by Brenda Baillie and Karen Bayne, is on “The historical use of fire as a land management tool in New Zealand and the challenges for its continued use”. It has just been published online early by Landscape Ecology. This paper reviews the historical rural use of fire by Māori and Europeans, and discusses the challenges facing its future use in NZ as a land management tool. This work forms part of the project investigating use of fire as a tool in NZ, and follows publication of an earlier paper on attitudes towards use of fire, and report and summary on findings from a survey of fire use in NZ.

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Scion research features in climate change coverage

Scion climate scientist, Nathanael Melia, was asked for comment recently on the fires in the Amazon basin. He provided comment for the Science Media Centre, and was also interviewed on Radio NZ. Nathanael made specific mention of the important role of tropical forests and effect of clouds in ameliorating the impacts of climate change, and therefore the effects of forest removal and changing land surface characteristics in accentuating it.

Interestingly, all the media hype around these latest Amazon fires wasn’t necessarily all truthful, accurate or factual! However, the fires were still significant, and worthy of reporting as a way of drawing attention to global forest loss.

Research conducted by Scion and NIWA into the effects of projected changes in fire danger for New Zealand also featured heavily in recent NZ Herald articles on impacts of climate change, including a piece specifically around increased fire risk.

This was part of the Covering Climate Now initiative, a global campaign by more than 170 international media organisations to draw attention to the issue of climate change ahead of a United Nations summit on 23 September.

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Northland fire hui and fair day

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Working with whānau from Ngāti Te Aukiwa, the Waitaruke Marae Committee and Fire & Emergency New Zealand (FENZ), scientists from Scion and Te Tira Whakamātaki (The Maori Biosecurity Network) hosted two days of fire-related events on 2-3 August, with the aim of educating Northland communities about extreme fires. Extreme fires are the worst of wildfires, being more intense, faster-spreading and resistant to current fire management strategies. Major fires threaten not only our communities and their resources, but also native taonga.

The first event, namely a “values and protection” workshop identified what whānau, hapū and community value and want protected during extreme fire events. This information will be to help guide development of ‘targeted protection’ strategies, based around the most appropriate methods for protecting the values identified. Feedback on values will also be included in the development of plans for our national agencies, so they know what communities value the most, and where to focus their efforts and resources in the event of an extreme fire.

A community fire fair took place on the second day. This day was all about fire safety, fire science and fun, with entertainment for children, giveaways, education stalls, kitchen fire demonstration, and a helicopter monsoon bucket demonstration and fire trucks. A planned demonstration scrub burn had to be postponed because of wet weather.

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Scion fire team develops 360 degree in-fire camera

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Scion’s Rural Fire Research team has developed a prototype for an in-fire 360° camera, which was successfully tested in the March 2019 stubble burns!

Originally thought up as a fun project in 2017, it was built by the Scion Fire team as a proof of concept to better understand fire behaviour in the flame front zone through direct tracking and observation of flame front passage, something previously impossible.

While in-fire cameras that can survive and record flames have been around for many years, these rely on traditional video cameras (previously VHS, and now action-type cameras) being protected within a fire-proof, heat-insulated housing. As such, the camera has a limited field of view only in one direction, and several cameras are needed to capture the fire approaching, passing by and then moving away (see video from 2018 stubble burns).

The 360° camera (in this case a Garmin VIRB 360) enables views in all directions to be recorded by a single camera (actually two lenses looking in different directions, with the resulting images then spliced together). The real advantage though is the ability of the user to interact with the video, by moving around within the imagery to look in different directions or, for our application, to focus in on specific fire behaviours and flame dynamics. (try it here)

The water-proof 360° camera is protected within a heat-tempered, liquid-filled glass bulb. The liquid absorbs the heat from the fire, so heats up only very slowly stopping the camera from overheating. Several other international research teams have developed similar camera systems (e.g. NIST, USFS).

It is hoped that footage will not only provide valuable data on fire behaviour but may also give the public an opportunity to better appreciate the force and intensity of wildfires.

So keep an eye out for more in-fire 360° footage from our next generation of camera!

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New video on NZ fire experiments

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A video on the New Zealand-led research to test the new theory of convective fire spread was produced recently, for use at the National Field Days. The video was aired as part of the joint science display by Scion, Landcare Research, AgResearch and ESR at the popular agricultural event.

The video describes the new convective theory, as well as the fire experiments being conducted by Scion’s fire research team together with national and international collaborators (from the University of Canterbury’s Geography Dept, US Forest Service’s Missoula Fire Science Lab and San Jose State University).

To date, two sets of burns have been completed in crop stubble fuels in 2018 and 2019, with further experiments planned for gorse scrub and subsequently wilding pines.

The video has been added to an updated section of the Rural Fire Research website (www.ruralfireresearch.co.nz), where further videos will be added in future. Currently this includes this new video, plus the presentation by the US Forest Service’s Dr Mark Finney describing the basis for the new fire spread theory.

The video can also be found on YouTube.

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NZ research at the Fire Behavior & Fuels conference

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New Zealand research featured strongly at the recent 6th Fire Behaviour & Fuels conferences. Concurrent conference sessions were held in: Sydney, Australia; Albuquerque, New Mexico in the USA; and Marseilles in France.

NZ researchers attended the Sydney event, where four oral talks and a poster were presented. Scion’s Grant Pearce gave an update on the NZ fire experiments testing the convective fire spread theory, while University of Canterbury’s Marwan Katurji presented on the thermal imagery component of this research.

Scion’s Ilze Pretorius also presented on NZ’s development of real-time fire detection, fire growth and smoke modelling systems, and meteorological conditions associated with the 2017 Port Hills wildfire. A poster on research to produce a wildfire hazard index for NZ, for use in comparing with other hazards, was also presented.

A presentation on the NZ burn experiments was also made by the US Forest Service’s Sara McAllister at the Albuquerque conference.

Extended abstracts for many of the other presentations made at the three conference sessions are available here.

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