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Predicting the path of bushfires

Within two minutes of a bushfire being reported in Victoria, a computer program has mapped out where the fire is likely to spread, helping managers decide if they should send firefighters or evacuate communities.

That computer program, Phoenix RapidFire, is the brainchild of researchers Kevin Tolhurst and Derek Chong. And it’s been 40 years in the making.

Tolhurst started studying forestry in the Victorian town of Creswick in 1974. Over time, he noticed a gap in how bushfires were managed. Predicting where a fire would spread was “largely intuition”, he says. There were computerised models of fire prediction in the northern hemisphere but they didn’t work in Australia’s eucalypt-dominated bush. Managers had to do manual calculations and make a best guess of how to fight fires.

Tolhurst saw bushfires first-hand as a field forester, began researching fire in 1984, and joined the University of Melbourne in 1997. He began working on a computer program which could predict likely fire spread in a more rational, consistent way – and give people hours of warning that a bushfire was heading their way.

Within seconds, the program crunches data on weather, wind, vegetation, the slope of the land and how dry the bush is. It turns this into a map of where the fire is likely to go, overlaid on Google Earth, and displays the results as a video.  The program also diagnoses the type of fire – how hot will it burn? How high will the flames go? Where might embers land? Trained fire analysts monitor and act on the results.

The software, which Tolhurst developed with colleague Derek Chong, was tested in 2009 and is now used across Victoria, NSW, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania. Hundreds of fire analysts have been trained to use it.

“A lot of what I’ve learnt about fire and fire behaviour I’ve tried to capture in a consistent way in Phoenix,” says Tolhurst, now an Associate Professor in Forest and Ecosystem Science at the Creswick campus where he started studying 40 years ago (it’s now part of the University of Melbourne).

 “The computer allows you to capture a lot more of the detail and the complexity … I think it will save lives, yes.”

Tolhurst hopes the software will lead to a better understanding of fire. “To try and control fire – it’s too powerful an agent to be able to do that with,” Tolhurst says. “You need to be able to live with it, you need to respect it, you need to understand it.”

The program also diagnoses the type of fire – how hot will it burn? How high will the flames go? Where might embers land?

Some people may want every bushfire extinguished, but as Tolhurst points out, the bush will burn at some point. Putting out almost every fire means fuel – dry wood and leaves – builds up, contributing to megafires like Victoria’s 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. As temperatures topped 48 degrees Celsius and winds gusted to 115 km/h, these fires killed 173 people. Tolhurst’s research shows climate change exacerbates the risk of megafires like Black Saturday.

Tolhurst was in Melbourne’s State Fire Control Centre that day, mentoring fire analysts and testing Phoenix. “It was my day off,” he recalls.

Tolhurst hopes Phoenix, which was funded by the Victorian government and the Bushfires Co-operative Research Centre, will be used to make strategic decisions about which fires can be left to burn. He’s also using the software to educate the public, speaking to community groups, fire authorities and government departments.

“It’s always been my driving force to produce knowledge and change in the way people understand and behave,” he explains.

Tolhurst may have spent many years at the Creswick campus, but he’s not done researching forests and fires just yet. His team is testing and refining Phoenix and improving the way it factors in wind. They’re tweaking it so it can be used to manage planned burns, where fires are lit in cool weather to reduce fuel.

Tolhurst also wants to change the way fire managers work. Rather than focus on losses and disasters, he wants them to use Phoenix to measure successes; where lives are saved, what factors helped?

Above all, Tolhurst wants fire to be understood rather than simply feared. “I enjoy trying to understand it, I find it endlessly fascinating,” Tolhurst says. “I think it’s magnificent … it’s so much bigger than you are that it provides a certain amount of respect.”


  • Since this story, Prof Kevin Tolhurst has been made an officer of the Order of Australia (AM) in the general division. He was awarded the Queen's Birthday honors for his significant service to science through land and bushfire management, and to the community through providing expert advice at fire emergencies. Read more

 Watch Kevin Tolhurst discuss fire while on a bush trip.




Forestry Professor