Bushfire season has started early this year, and fires are already burning along the eastern seaboard. New ways of protecting people, wildlife and infrastructure are needed now – and engineers are on the job to help.
Here are three ways engineers play an important role in preventing and protecting against bushfires.
The rate of extreme weather events is on the rise, and bushfires are likely to become more common, said Dr Petr Matous, a senior lecturer with the University of Sydney Faculty of Engineering. According to him, it’s time for engineers to think more about how the profession can contribute to preventing and mitigating bushfires.
“There’s only so much you can do with the traditional hazard reduction methods — they are good, but we are getting to an environment where any spark can cause quite large destruction,” he told create.
Matous pointed to how regulations have changed for developing new infrastructure in flood-prone areas as an example of how the built environment can adapt to the increasing risk posed by climate change.
“We have more new development pushing into fire-prone areas, so engineers and planners need to come together to find balances between construction and conservation to build safe communities that are also nice places to live,” he said.
This means stronger buffer zones and green belts around developments near bushland, and perhaps bodies of water that can serve as both a fire barrier and recreational area.
Advances in materials and construction techniques could also help buildings and infrastructure become more fire-resistant. Matous added that engineers need to think about existing developments as well, and whether any retrofitting is required.
“Another role we can play is planning in a way that enables faster transport of emergency vehicles, better connections to water sources, and planning in a way so that critical infrastructure like schools and hospitals are in safer places,” he said.
“We can devise air conditioning systems in a way so that people who live close to affected areas, or close to areas that will need to get more back-burning, don’t suffer from respiratory disease, and we can devise infrastructure, such as communication infrastructure or electric infrastructure, in a way so that it’s more likely to survive when there is a fire in the vicinity.”
As bushfire season becomes longer, and the threat posed by bushfires increases, Matous said it will become more important for engineers to consider their role in building safe communities and protecting existing ones.
“Engineers should be active participants from the start — where something is being built, how it’s being built and whether it’s safe,” he said.
“It’s not just about building the thing. We should think beyond the project scale or local scale as well, because this is part of a global issue.”
Matous is interested in creating a new type of engineer who is trained to deal with these risks and conditions, as “unfortunately the frequency of large-scale disasters is only increasing”.
“We need to create new types of engineers who can work with resource constraints, in difficult contexts and disaster contexts,” he said.
“Engineers should be quite ambitious in the way we see our role. We should be participating in those discussions that are often left to policy makers or other disciplines, and we shouldn’t undersell ourselves as the only people who will solve a problem once it’s been defined by someone else — we should participate in the discussions of what the problem is and how to approach it.”
Help from above
It’s important to take a long-term view towards preparing for bushfires, but immediate solutions are also needed.
A Queensland-based manufacturing company has created a water tank designed to fit onto the bottom of military helicopters, effectively repurposing them for firefighting while requiring little to no modifications to the aircraft itself.
Helitak Fire Fighting Equipment is based in Noosa and has been operating since 2006. The company is the creation of engineer and experienced firefighting pilot Jason Schellaars, who identified the need for a user-friendly, easy-to-install unit for use with helicopters.
The company recently received a grant from the Queensland State Government to further commercialise the innovation and scale up production.
The underbelly-style FT4500 water tank is suitable for Black Hawk helicopters, which have mechanisms and functionality well-suited to firefighting, including the ability to fly in a wide range of conditions and operate at night.
Schellaars, who serves as the company’s CEO, said the release force of the Black Hawk bomb doors means water can be dropped quicker and penetrate deeper into the forest canopy.
“It’s capable of dumping 4500 litres of water in one drop or being dialled back so that not all of the water or retardant is dropped at once, which is very useful for controlling spot fires,” he said.
The top section of the tank is constructed from carbon fibre, making it lightweight and durable, while the expandable lower section can fill in less than 50 seconds and drop in under five seconds.
“They’ve demonstrated their ability to scale up and create jobs locally, as well as their potential to address a serious challenge here in Queensland,” said Innovation Minister Kate Jones.
“As severe fire danger grips part of Queensland, it’s a timely reminder of the important work companies like Helitak are doing to defend communities and wildlife.”
Other countries experiencing threats from bushfires, including the US, have expressed interest in the FT4500 tank.
Like BOM rain data, “but for fires”
Taking things even further, Australian-designed instrumentation is helping monitor bushfires from space.
A hyperspectral camera — known as the DLR Earth Sensing Imaging Spectrometer (DESIS) — was launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and installed on the International Space Station (ISS) late last year, where it is used to monitor global natural disasters, bushfires and environmental changes on Earth.
The camera is a result of a three-year collaboration between the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) and the La Trobe University Department of Engineering.
Dr Peter Moar, the university’s project lead, said this technology can help governments and emergency services in Australia and around the world.
“It will help save lives and minimise damage to property and infrastructure by providing timely images of natural disasters such as bushfires,” he said.
DESIS transmits data to La Trobe’s Engineering Department and Melbourne-based industry partner ESS Weathertech. It is also designed to work in collaboration with the DLR FIREBIRD satellite constellation, which measures and maps high-temperature events on Earth using visible wavelengths as well as infrared technology.
Moar said DESIS and FIREBIRD, in combination with satellites expected to be launched in the next five to eight years, will provide equivalent mapping to the Bureau of Meteorology’s rain data, “but for fires”.