Bushfire Preparedness: What the Royal Commission recommendations mean for asset owners and critical infrastructure operators.

January 16, 2021

With the nation urged to take a more focused approach to bushfire risk, many are asking what will this mean for critical infrastructure operators and asset owners? A willingness from the government to work more closely with stakeholders to make critical infrastructure more resilient has sparked a paradigm shift, shining the spotlight on how innovative digital technology can contribute to better prevention and preparedness to reduce the catastrophic consequences of bushfire disasters.

2019/20: The Sobering Reality

Over my 30 years in Emergency Services, I have certainly seen my fair share of disasters, but when I look at the 2019-20 Australian Black Summer bushfire season in numbers, it is even hard for me to grasp. The last fire season has seen over 24 million hectares across the country burned, more than 9,300 buildings destroyed, 34 deaths and is estimated to have cost over $103 billion – pretty sobering facts – and that was before the COVID-19 Pandemic impacted a nation still in recovery mode. But, in true Australian character, we found strength amidst the ashes and a determination to take action that will reduce these effects for the fires we will inevitably see in the future.

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Above: Satellite images like this are a powerful reminder of how fragile our environment really is. Two people and an estimated 25,000 koalas were killed when fire devastated Kangaroo Island in the state of South Australia on 9 January.

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements (RCNNDA) was established to make recommendations for Australia to mitigate the effects of natural disasters, including bushfires, in the future. A core focus born out of the findings,is a directive on improving collective awareness and mitigation of risks to critical infrastructure (Recommendation 9.4). More specifically, it outlines how the Australian Government will be working with state and territory governments, and critical infrastructure operators, to lead a process that will:

  1. identify critical infrastructure,
  2. assess key risks to identified critical infrastructure from natural disasters of national scale or consequence,
  3. identify steps needed to mitigate these risks,
  4. identify steps to make the critical infrastructure more resilient, and
  5. track achievement against an agreed plan.

So, what does this mean for asset owners and critical infrastructure operators?

An unprecedented importance on preparedness

With a focus on the importance of bushfire prevention and preparedness, and a directive for government and critical infrastructure operators to work more closely together, the most frequently asked question I have heard amongst groups I’m currently engaging with is: ‘what exactly does this mean for asset operators and organisations who own and run critical infrastructure’?

Acknowledging that global temperatures are continuing to rise, if we draw focus to Australia this translates to an estimated 1.5 degree rise in median temperatures that has contributed to the increased frequency and intensity of extreme bushfire events.

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Above:Australian Bureau of Meteorology map of Australia showing increased mean temperatures as at December 29. Graph showing annual mean temperatures above and below average.

Changing the focus from response to prevention and preparedness, along with innovations in technology to support this shift, will fill a void that helps asset owners mitigate the increasing bushfire risks to critical infrastructure.

Mitigation of risks to critical infrastructure

After seeing the effects of bushfire disasters as a first responder, I have devoted most of my career to enhancing the way we prevent and prepare for these events. A bushfires. A significant part of this, which has now been specifically articulated in the recent RCNNDA recommendations, is working to identify critical infrastructure and protected conservation areas and assets - that disrupt communities and prolong the time it takes to recover from natural disasters when they are impacted by bushfires. Developing risk mitigation strategies to better protect communities from the effects of bushfires will significantly contribute to the overarching goal of building resilience

Now that the issue has been annunciated more clearly, and with a directive that government and critical infrastructure owners and operators should work more closely together, I have defined what ‘critical infrastructure might mean’ and who those stakeholders might be.

Traditionally, ‘critical infrastructure’ has referred to infrastructure assets such as power lines, water treatment plants and telecommunications, the destruction of which causes widespread negative impacts and disrupts continuity of day-to-day community life. I believe that this definition should be expanded to include the natural environment and account for assets like habitat, cultural sites and our native fauna.

Some examples are:

  • The Department of Defence: which has sensitive assets and military bases set amongst vegetated areas,
  • Power and Water utility companies: which typically have widespread assets surrounded by bushland or in remote locations,
  • Parks and Wildlife departments: which manage vast areas of protected natural habitat and assets within these spaces, and
  • Transport organisations: whose interconnect networks cross bushfire prone areas.

While there is a degree of regulation enforced in terms of risk mitigation, the best defence will come with embracing technological advancements to:

  1. Quantitatively define bushfire risk specific to a defined critical infrastructure or a specific area boundary,
  2. Use data to model different scenarios based on known variables such as historical weather information, terrain interactions, vegetation and fuel,
  3. Understand the current level of risk for a defined area boundary in more precise detail and how this risk changes time,
  4. Deploy m itigation strategies that are planned, tested and evaluated using a repeatable, consistent evidence-based approach,
  5. Provide intelligence that supports better allocation of resources to manage bushfire risk,
  6. Execute regular preparedness measures in line with a bushfire preparedness regime, and
  7. Undertake safe maintenance work, with the ability to assess and take steps to prevent bushfire outbreaks.

So how does technology help and what role does it play in this defence against bushfire disasters?  

The role technology plays  

In today’s digital age where almost everything we do in our lives revolves around technology, many would assume there is an existing solution that can address the above points. Surprisingly, this is not the case – until now. 

I’m proud to bring my expertise to the team at RedEye, a global  digital technology company, to develop a world-first capability that improves bushfire prevention and preparedness for asset owners. This technology will help reduce loss of life, property and our natural environment. 

So how will this be done?

RedEye are digitising best practice bushfire planning, prevention, preparedness and response tools and science-based methodologies into a new suite of cloud and mobile applications for asset owners, government departments and applied fire users. The RedEye Bushfire Management Platform and BurnSafe application will improve fire related decision making, reducing the risk to lives and of fire impacting physical and ecological assets and critical infrastructure.

High-definition data and leading technologies including simulation, spatial data mapping, long-term and forecast weather products, analytics, machine learning together with asset and work management software make up this innovative and easy to use suite of tools – designed to support asset owners, government departments and agencies – better plan, mitigate and manage bushfires

Broken down into distinct modules, The RedEye Bushfire Management Platform and BurnSafe application will enact functionality at a range of stages based on a time-centric approach: 

  1. Years-to-Decades:Long-term asset and urban planning, 
  2. Months-to-Years:Integrating fire regime & hazard reduction strategies into mitigation planning, improving vegetation management and decision-making,  
  3. Weeks-to-Months:Identifying emerging areas of relatively increased bushfire potential to refine and execute near-term mitigation strategies, 
  4. Days:Accessing current bushfire potential to inform preparedness levels, work schedules and identify burning opportunities for the coming days,  
  5. Safe Burning:Planning applied and permitted fire for structured and consistent safe burning, and   
  6. Damage Assessment: Identifying, capturing and assessing damage to prioritise recovery and rebuild activities.

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The RedEye Bushfire Management Platform and BurnSafe application will enable asset owners and critical infrastructure operators to:  

  • Minimise loss of property and protect against loss of life with quantitative prevention and preparedness strategies,  
  • Reduce downtime and de-energising by isolating areas based on intelligence around current and near future risk,  
  • Maintain compliant bushfire risk planning with a robust bushfire risk mitigation framework, 
  • Bring best-practice bushfire preparedness into critical infrastructure operations, 
  • Execute safe maintenance work based on deeper area insight,  
  • Intelligently allocate resources across different assets.  

Launching in 2021, the RedEye Bushfire Management Platform and BurnSafe application is a world-first protection technology that, unlike anything on the market, focuses on a time-centric approach to bushfire risk mitigation and management steps with an underlying goalto help asset owners and critical infrastructure operators safeguard against the impacts of bushfires and protect against loss of life.  

 Find out more  

Andrew Sturgess
With an esteemed career in the fire industry spanning more than three decades, Andrew Sturgess is widely recognised for using his years of frontline and in-field experience and ability to connect science with operations to pioneer specialist bushfire prediction capabilities for Queensland Fire and Emergency Services. Bringing a wealth of knowledge and a breadth of experience second to none, Andrew has continued his passion and now leads bushfire preparedness technology innovation as RedEye's Technical Director of Fire Technology.
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