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Post: Research and technology helping communities and industry manage bushfires

Guidelines for salvaging in fire-impacted plantations 

The unprecedented bushfires of 2019/20 resulted in the destruction of many properties, a devastating impact on our wildlife, and the tragic loss of human life. From an industry perspective, the fires caused extensive damage to Australia’s plantation and natural forest resources.

As we look toward the summer ahead and the potential for further bushfires, FWPA continues to support the forestry industry by providing information and resources to help minimise and manage the impacts of wildfires and maximise resource recovery.

One aspect of our work in this area was the development last year of the ‘Guidelines for salvage harvest, storage and processing of plantation-grown logs affected by fire’, which highlight the importance of integrated fire planning, including considering and preparing for salvage.

The guidelines were developed to offer a comprehensive summary of the collective knowledge of many Australian forest industry members with previous experience in the salvage, storage and processing of fire damaged timber. This was combined with a significant body of international experience and research.

Author of the guidelines Braden Jenkin said, “One of the key messages to come out of the document was that it takes somewhere between eighteen months to two years before the trees degrade too much to be useful as logs, depending on climate and damage levels … The easiest and cheapest approach is to store log resources on the stump.”

Jenkin, together with a Technical Expert Working Group, assembled all relevant published references and a significant body of unpublished literature that contained the industry’s collective in this area.

“I found that we already knew a lot, and a key challenge is to manage and keep that knowledge at the forefront,” Jenkins commented.

The document makes observations, best practice recommendations and identifies knowledge gaps.

As part of the same project, FWPA developed a database capturing historical data and information about larger-scale Australian plantation fire losses with information dating as far back as the early 1920s. This collated historical data offers technical managers greater insight into the data used to inform the guidelines.

While the guidelines provide an analysis of the available data, identification by FWPA of areas requiring future research resulted in the development of a proposal for a national fire program.

National fire program to better support industry

FWPA, along with industry partners, has designed a comprehensive research plan for a national bushfire program to determine the effects of fire on commercial plantations.

The research program has been designed to increase the Australian timber industry’s preparedness and capacity to minimise the adverse impacts of future fire events in forestry plantations.

The program will include a mix of field-based, laboratory and modelling studies to determine the impact of fire severity on:

  • standing tree damage and survival
  • wood properties and quality
  • efficacy of storage treatments
  • economic value recovery and market ramifications
  • risks of pre- and post-harvest rates of pest infestation and stain development
  • changes to site quality for next rotation tree growth
  • wildfire risk modelling for future resource availability.

Among its objectives, the proposed research aims to guide the forestry and timber industries on post-fire operations to ensure the maximum amount of logs can be salvaged and put to use, following fire damage.

Fundamentally the plan would focus on filling gaps in our current knowledge. For example, while previous literature has indicated that fire damaged wood is more at risk from diseases and pests, this research would measure the compounding effects of insect and fungal colonisation on wood after fire on wood quality and viability for sale.

Thermal impacts on wood quality and merchantability, effects on soil following severe wildfire and the impact of fire on wood, and pulp quality in a variety of trees will also be key areas of the research as it progresses.

The program will ultimately develop a decision support system (DSS) that can be used by industry to identify optimal post-fire salvage responses that are customised to different regions, fire intensities, stand ages and site conditions. This will provide benefits to the timber industry through better utilisation of fire-impacted forests.

The DSS will facilitate industry planning and preparedness to ensure suitable strategies are available for future fire events. Webinars and seminars will be held to communicate guidelines and key findings to industry stakeholders.

“By using this tool, forest growers should be able to get greater value back, stagger out time to harvest the affected resources, or make the call early that an area won’t be able to be salvaged and should instead be prepared for replanting,” said principal researcher Dr Tim Smith, Director of Forestry Science at the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

The hope is to give ‘much greater certainty to forestry communities,’ said Smith.

The budget estimate for the proposed research is $7.85M, with funding support from various industry partners, the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, and FWPA.

New monitoring technology to improve fire management 

A sophisticated fire detection camera known as FireHawk, in trial by forest management company SFM Forest Products, is set to enhance fire management practices, improve the protection of assets, and safeguard the broader community.

The robotic camera was first installed at a communications tower near Tantanoola, South Australia. Another FireHawk was recently installed in the Lenah Estate in Tasmania. The South Australian trials have been successful and SFM Forest Products hopes to expand this trial in the next two years.

The FireHawk camera can undertake 360-degree scans of its surroundings and streams up-to-the minute surveillance accessible to view via its system. Once smoke is detected, the system sends alerts the person monitoring the system, including an app on fire managers’ mobile phones, to enable a rapid response.

Early results have shown the camera can detect fires up to 30 kilometres away, providing the industry with confidence in the technology’s potential to significantly enhance fire management during the coming season.

David Bowman, Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science at the University of Tasmania, said that rapid attack is a critical approach to preventing bushfires from becoming uncontrollable and destructive.

“Using ground-based sensor technology is a massive improvement from the older methods of having people based in fire lookout towers,” said Bowman.

“As the fire season lengthens due to climate change, we need to improve and adapt. The FireHawk is a fantastic example of using new technologies to improve fire suppression capacity.”

Meanwhile, a new FWPA-funded collaborative proof-of-concept project led by Dr Christine Stone of the NSW Department of Primary Industries will focus on characterising the complex structure of Australia’s native forests for the first time, which could potentially aid in minimising fire risk and planning operations pre- and post- bushfires.

Dr Stone, of the NSW Department of Primary Industries, has for many years led research projects about the use of remote platforms equipped with various types of sensors to capture data to assist plantation forest management.

Dr Stone’s team will investigate methods that can link data captured on-the-ground via terrestrial mobile laser scanning, as well as via airborne laser scanners attached to planes, and even the GEDI (Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation) sensor on board the International Space Station.

This structural information has the potential to be used to inform areas of native forest operation including the monitoring of changes in stand structure, species habitat modelling, stand and tree level inventory, and fuel load modelling for the prediction of bushfire behaviour, suppression planning, recovery and regeneration.

You can learn more about Dr Stone’s work in this area on the WoodChat podcast.

Elsewhere, a team from the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) received an Australian Government Citizen Science Grant of almost $500,000, for the design and implementation of an app called NOBURN (National Bushfire Resilience Network), to help predict the likelihood of bushfire events and minimise their effects.

‘Citizen scientists’ from around the country – including people who hike, work and camp in forest areas – will be encouraged to use the app and help collect vital data by uploading photos and videos, as well as collecting forest fuel samples. The app will offer instructions to users and will include a series of validation steps to upload and verify their data.

The data gathered through the app will be matched with satellite imagery, as well as climate and topographic data, and will then be used to train artificial intelligence models to predict the probability, severity and burn area of potential bushfires.

The project team will be led by Deputy Director of USC’s Forest Research Institute Professor Mark Brown, and USC Research Fellow Dr Sam Van Holsbeeck. They will be supported by the Director of USC’s Centre for Human Factors and Sociotechnical Systems Professor Paul Salmon, and will work in cooperation with experts at the Australian Institute for Machine Learning (AIML) at The University of Adelaide, Exci (formerly Fireball International) and the Noosa Shire Council.

“A range of factors determine the likelihood and severity of fires, including fuel load, moisture content, ignition source and wind,” said Brown.

“While naturally occurring bushfires cannot be avoided, there is an opportunity with this project to predict their likelihood and implement strategies to mitigate their impact on the environment, property and life.”

“Besides the long-term effects of bushfire resilience and disaster preparedness, NOBURN is about creating awareness around the likelihood of bushfires and engaging citizens into science,” said Van Holsbeeck.

Over the next few months, the NOBURN app will go through a development process and will be tested in the field. The USC, together with local Sunshine Coast project partners, will prompt residents to partake in targeted testing. Following this, and by July 2022, the app will be launched and available to all Australians.

Source: Forest and Wood Products Australia

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