Modelling: a glamorous new prospect? Don’t get excited yet.

Participants at the July 15 Bendigo information session on the Fire Operations Plan were briefed on the ‘Risk Landscapes’ project. This consists of running models of different fire scenarios and fuel reduction exercises through a computer to see how they would affect the two aims of human safety and ecological resilience.

The project uses a program called ‘Phoenix rapidfire’, and was proclaimed as the next big thing in 2011–though specific details of what it has achieved were markedly absent from Monday’s presentation.

It’s theoretically possible that if researchers put every available bit of relevant information about a particular piece of land into a computer, and ran various scenarios [about weather conditions, etc] through the program, they could simulate how damaging a bushfire would be. If they varied the information to make assumptions about how much fuel reduction had taken place in those parcels of land, they could see what effect this fuel reduction would have on a possible fire. They could use the same research approach to simulate how ecologically damaging a bushfire would be, and similarly, how much damage a fuel reduction exercise would be.

In the absence of specific information it’s hard to judge the worth of this program. There was some suggestion that this kind of modelling could make hectare targets unnecessary: that is, with the right kind of precise information, you could run a fuel reduction program specifically designed to protect this or that asset, or community. This would certainly be preferable to the present system of mindlessly burning thousands of hectares to no obvious end…but we’ll have to wait and see what it does before getting hopeful about any change in the present fire regime. Participants at Monday’s briefing were told to ‘manage your expectations’ about what the program will achieve.  This is bureaucratic language for ‘don’t hold your breath.’

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