Opinion piece - Dr Marta Yebra says Australia can do better to support fire management

10 February 2020

Written by Dr Marta Yebra - senior lecturer at ANU, and a mission specialist at the ANU Institute for Space. Article first appeared in the Canberra Times 9 February.

Despite all of the earth observation data being used to retrieve critical fire information over our current fire crisis, Australia can definitely do better by launching its own space mission targeted to meet fire management requirements in terms of temporal and spatial resolution and better fit to Australian conditions.

If we don't do this, we will miss opportunities to provide more accurate intelligence to firefighters given the fire seasons to come in a changing climate.

We are already in the worst bushfire season in Australia. For more than two months, Australia has suffered from picks of fire activity followed by favourable conditions where firefighters, have worked on strengthening containment lines, supported by water-bombing aircrafts, to slow the spread of fire ahead of extreme fire danger forecast conditions.

More frequent and severe bushfires are expected in the coming years, more people will be living in high-risk bushfire areas and there will be more competition for firefighting resources. There have been calls for a national firefighting force to supplement existing state resources, but that is not a long-term solution.

The increasingly challenging fire management situation and growing direct economic costs are calling for proactive approaches to first reduce the likelihood of catastrophic bushfires and then provide a quick response.

Earth observation has a huge potential to help towards this approach, and, indeed it's already supporting fire management in Australia but not at the full potential as it heavily depends on data available by other international space agencies.

For example, satellite data and imaging from the NASA Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) is contributing to the characterisation of fuel moisture content. Fuel moisture content affects the severity of the bushfire and can be retrieved from satellite imagery because of the effect that water has on the spectra reflectance through absorption of radiation within certain spectral regions. Despite spatially explicit maps telling fire managers how dry the fuel is and how likely it is that the fuel ignites and spreads, fuel condition currently monitored using MODIS data does not fully fit the purpose.

Middle and thermal infrared observations from the same MODIS sensor are used to detect active fires or hotspots. However, satellites pass over a given area in Australia no more than four times a day and consequently some fires are missed. Similar information can be retrieved every 10 to 15 minutes from the Japanese Himawari-8 satellite making it possible to detect more active fires and to track in detail the evolution of the fire line. However, the broader spatial resolution of the satellite means that fires cannot be detected until they are of considerable size or intensity.

Finally, after the fire, optical satellite data mainly from the European Space Agency's Sentinel-2 and NASA/USGS's Landsat program are used to analyse fire severity and vegetation recovery. Analysing fire severity right after the fire is of ultimate importance for targeting remediation efforts to protect for the example water supplies post-fire, while vegetation recovery will dictate the amount of fuel available for the next fire season.