Umwelt Bushfire – Shifting to Digital

With 2020 still a very recent, and in many places a harsh memory, it is good to reflect on how we have adjusted to the events of early 2020, and the changes we have made to assist us as we move forward.  The ‘Black Summer’ fires in Australia were a historic disaster and will change the way we deal with fire forever. The damage was extensive, with over 19 million hectares burnt nationally, but at the same time has instigated changes that will be essential for dealing with our management of fire in a changing climate. The extensive damage to important habitats, catchments and recreational areas means that protecting unburned remnants, encouraging regeneration of burned areas as well as safeguarding soils and waterways will be a critical factor in the future survival of many species.

Shifting to remote digital tools

Prior to the tragic fires in 2020, Umwelt had increasingly been using live spatial data to track our field teams and collect higher resolution data across the full suite of technical field services, with our bushfire assessments no exception. Mobile phone and tablet-based mapping applications enabled our teams to pinpoint where they were on the site, and update spatial layers showing vegetation types, bushfire fuel levels and the location of key assets. When combined with mobile fire warning apps this approach allowed us to work efficiently checking Asset Protection Zones and fire trail conditions, creating digital reports that could be updated to work orders with a dramatically shorter turn-around time. Just as the major fires were over, the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns began, making this shift to digital delivery a critical element in monitoring post-fire recovery throughout 2020/21.

The impact of bushfire across NSW, the need to undertake detailed ecological assessment, and COVID-19 travel restrictions created a wicked problem, however this was also the impetus for innovation. While some businesses struggled to get their remote systems up and running, we were able to rapidly shift to remote work and enhance our use of mobile spatial data, affording our teams the ability to work in a COVID-compliant manner and remain connected with each other and our clients. The security, scalability and efficiency of this approach is now a key component of our capability into the future, that will surpass any restrictions associated with the pandemic.

Our observations from post-fire assessments have identified some significant and long-lasting issues on many sites, such as:

  • Weed establishment, with some benefit for short-term erosion control, but with a risk of overwhelming native regeneration
  • Unauthorised access, with many properties experiencing damaged fencing and gates allowing further damage, littering and the potential for introduction of new weeds and pathogens
  • Inconsistent regeneration of native species, particularly for areas that have experienced their second intense fire in a relatively short period, particularly where there was insufficient time for effective seed set in the inter-fire period.

The big advantage of digital and spatial tools is that we can pinpoint where remedial work needs to occur and at the same time map site constraints, hazards, and threats. For instance, the location and extent of emerging weed infestations can be accurately located on maps and then sent directly to weed management contractors. This is particularly useful in a damaged landscape, where landmarks and other features have been changed or lost, where sensitive environmental values are more vulnerable, and where occupational hazards persist long after the fire.

While there are many aspects of 2020 we hope to move beyond, the transition to a highly connected, dispersed but interactive workplace is not one of them. For Umwelt’s bushfire assessment, ecology and other field-based service teams, the ability to rapidly assess landscapes and share detailed spatial data in real time is one capability we will not only maintain, but will strive to further enhance.

Changes to landscape management – recommendations and future directions

The 2019-2021 bushfire seasons has seen over 19.4 million hectares burnt nationally, with7.7 million hectares impacted in NSW alone.

Following the 2019-20 bushfire season the NSW Government commissioned an independent expert inquiry to provide an analysis of contributing factors, including the effectiveness of hazard reduction, emergency response and recovery. The inquiry’s final report made a total of 76 recommendations, all of which have been accepted.

Many of the recommendations made have important ramifications for how we manage landscapes into the future, these include:

  • Establishment of a national bushfire database, to monitor trends in bushfire activity across all land tenures, and evaluate the cost-effectiveness of hazard mitigation activities (Recommendation 3)
  • Creating a single whole-of-government information collection system, known as Digital Twin, to support bushfire management, including aerial imagery, LiDAR, location of assets. This will include details of hazard reduction results for road verges, fire trails, APZ’s and other landscape features (Recommendation 18)
  • Strengthening the role of Bushfire Coordinating Committees, including enabling them to undertake audits of bushfire management plans and other mitigation actions (Recommendation 8, Recommendation 19)
  • Supporting local councils and NSW agencies to undertake more comprehensive hazard reduction around towns, cities, communities, and local infrastructure (Recommendation 20)
  • Requiring all public land management agencies to forward complaints about bushfire hazard reduction to the Commissioner for the Rural Fire Service (RFS) effective immediately (Recommendation 23)
  • Developing a formal risk assessment process for all State road and bridge assets to identify high risk assets that could affect egress from vulnerable communities, (Recommendation 31)
  • For Transport for NSW and the RFS to work towards an outcomes-based roadside vegetation management approach that minimises risk and considers biodiversity values (Recommendation 32)

The Royal Commission into Natural Disaster Arrangements also presented its report in October 2020, with a focus on improving co-ordination between governments and bolstering our national response capabilities. While the regulation of land management is primarily a State and Territory issue, the sheer scale of the bushfires meant that several matters protected under our national environmental laws were affected.  The impacts of the fires on these protected matters are likely to affect assessment and approval processes, particularly for species that rely on habitats with a long fire recovery cycle.

Key areas for future policy development arising from both the State and National bushfire inquiries include:

  • Use of indigenous fire management techniques to manage fuel in the landscape
  • Improved sharing of people and resources across jurisdictions, including harmonisation of standards and information systems
  • Identifying and improving the resilience of critical infrastructure
  • Public availability of fuel load assessment and management strategies, including clarity on the requirements for landholders.

At Umwelt, we will continue to work with our clients to assist them in adapting to these changes. Our combined expertise in bushfire planning, biodiversity, heritage, and catchment management, alongside a wide range of other specialist skills, uniquely places Umwelt in a position to support the integration of recommended processes and in facilitating future developments in landscape management and bushfire policy.

The link to the final report of the NSW Bushire Inquiry can be found here.

To see how Umwelt can assist you, get in touch with us on 1300 793 267 or info@umwelt.com.au