Bushfire battle extends to space

By Greg Ansley

Operation to protect Australia from disaster ranges from volunteers on ground to high-tech satellite imagery.

Photos of Australian bushfires taken by Commander Chris Hadfield from the International Space Station. Pictures / Chris Hadfield / NASA
Photos of Australian bushfires taken by Commander Chris Hadfield from the International Space Station. Pictures / Chris Hadfield / NASA

Fire chiefs in Australian states are manoeuvring forces larger than the army as cooler weather brings brief respite for the southeast and the heat pushes danger into northern New South Wales and Queensland.

In a huge and complex operation, the co-ordination of tens of thousands of firefighters, thousands of vehicles and large aviation wings is swinging to meet emerging threats while battling furiously to contain the hundreds of fires that have burned in four states.

The desperate fight to protect Australia through one of its worst fire dangers, fuelled by searing winds from the superheated interior, runs from space to boots on the ground in the most remote corners of the continent's east.

Successive disasters have taught authorities crucial lessons that embrace what the military calls C4I - Command, Control, Communications Computing and Information - and new national systems and co-ordination.

Their effectiveness has been demonstrated in the past week as temperatures set new records and fires raged through vast tracts of land. Despite the destruction of more than 100 properties in Tasmania, Victoria and NSW, massive stock losses and the devastation of hundreds of thousands of hectares of grassland and bush, the toll has been lower than expected. No deaths have been reported so far, and only a small number of injuries.

Cutting-edge technology is feeding information to fire control centres.

Images from American satellites passing twice daily over Australia with thermal infra-red sensors reveal new outbreaks and are fed to the centres through Geoscience Australia's ground station at Alice Springs. Aircraft using remote sensing equipment feed into state systems.

This is a key to finding new outbreaks. Causes can range from arson to obscure events in remote areas: lightning strikes, which at times do not flare until well after they ground, sparks from cars or power tools or, as in Tasmania, from the heat stored in a burned-out tree root that had been doused and apparently extinguished for days.

Further data on temperatures, soil and air humidity and other factors are also supplied continually from the Bureau of Meteorology.

In NSW, the Rural Fire Service headquarters in Homebush, Sydney has the Southern Hemisphere's biggest digital video wall, with 100 screens and a complex digital signal distribution network and control system. The wall is linked to 14 computer systems to plan deployments and responses, and monitors media coverage to decide what extra information needs to be provided for people potentially in harm's way.

The forces managed by the big states are huge: 2100 volunteer brigades and 70,000 firefighters in NSW alone. The strength of the Australian Army, including reserves, is about 47,000. State fire services have their own air forces.

NSW has about 100 planes and helicopters on call, including light aircraft for reconnaissance and small fires, larger water-bombing medium and heavy helicopters, and medical evacuation and transport aircraft. High-profile aircraft include huge American CH54 B Skycrane helitankers, heavy-lift helicopters fitted with high-capacity tanks capable of carrying 9000 litres of water and which scoop water from the sea.

Firefighters on the ground are deployed through local fire control centres, with units moved constantly to combat existing outbreaks, others placed strategically through potential flashpoints, and special strike teams to race to new crises.

Coordination and cooperation extends both across state borders and outside rural fires services to organisations including police, the Meteorology Bureau, Geoscience Australia, defence forces, government departments, rural land managers, local government, schools, the media, and essential services.

- NZ Herald

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