The University of Queensland and Google have launched a new partnership to develop a world-first bushfire hazard detection system that issues warnings in real-time.
The project plans to use artificial intelligence (AI) to track embers and deliver nowcasts to alert authorities to extreme bushfire hazards.
“The goal of our work is ultimately to save lives, property and the environment by providing increased accuracy in forecasting bushfire movements and alerting community members and emergency responders before they spread,” says project lead Professor Hamish McGowan, who works in UQ’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences.
A $1.374 million grant from Google.org, Google’s philanthropic arm, will enable UQ researchers to improve the accuracy of warnings in areas under ember attack up to 30 kilometres downwind from a fire that authorities may have previously perceived as safe.
“The project will benefit Australia by identifying new AI solutions to detect bushfire activity – early on and in real-time – with a goal to safeguard at-risk communities, flora and fauna,” says Google Australia Engineering Site Lead Daniel Nadasi. “Initiatives like this will help build a strong and more resilient digital future for Australia.”
The cost of bushfires
Bushfires incur devastating costs. The Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20 burnt an estimated 18 million hectares of land, claimed 34 lives, destroyed 9,000 buildings, and killed or displaced an estimated three billion animals. The Black Saturday bushfires that ravaged Victoria in 2009 directly claimed 173 lives and burnt 430,000 hectares of land.
The total monetary cost of a bushfire can be difficult to measure. The Royal Commission into the Black Saturday fires in 2009 calculated the cost at $4.4bn, including $1.2bn in insurance claims.
According to Deloitte, the tangible costs – which include lives lost and destroyed home, contents and vehicles – of the 2009 Black Saturday fires amounted to A$3.1 billion, while the intangible costs – including social effects such as mental health problems, unemployment, substance abuse, relationship breakdowns and domestic violence – totalled A$3.9 billion, producing a total of A$7 billion.
An ANU paper published in 2020 estimates that bushfires will cost the economy $2.2 billion per year between 2020 and 2049 and argues that early bushfire detection could produce an economic benefit of $14.4 billion.
As a CSIRO factsheet explains, climate change has contributed to increases in the occurrence of extreme fire weather and the length of the fire season across large parts of Australia since the 1950s. “The impact of climate change has led to longer, more intense fire seasons and an increase in the average number of elevated fire weather days, as measured by the Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI),” it states. “In addition to 2019 being the driest year since records began in 1900, it was Australia’s warmest year. In 2019 the annual mean temperature was 1.52°C above average.”
Mitigating the elevated bushfire risk due to climate change is a priority for the team behind UQ’s new AI bushfire detection project. “We know that the effects of climate change are causing more extreme weather events including bushfires across the world and we are committed to helping find solutions that can lessen the impact,” says Professor McGowan.