Published: Miranda Devine, Herald Sun
AS THE days warm up and the sweet smell of jasmine fills the air, let’s not forget the dark side of the Australian summer.
Failure to perform adequate hazard reduction of bushfire-prone areas to remove fuel has long been a major factor in out-of-control conflagrations.
But now comes a sophisticated surveillance device that can detect the mere whiff of smoke from as far away as 60km, allowing fire crews to extinguish a blaze before it runs out of control.
The technology, which can detect 16,384 shades of grey, and tell the difference between between fog, mist, cloud and bushfire smoke, was originally developed by the German Aerospace Agency for exploring the surface of Mars during the NASA Pathfinder mission.
The intellectual property was first acquired by a company run by former Stasi agents, (men with a proven interest in surveillance).
Then, five years ago, it was bought by Australian engineer David Goodrich and entrepreneur Dr Peter Neustadt.
They have turned “FireWatch” into an early detection device for Australian bushfires, which can analyse smoke data and send a photograph, map co-ordinates, temperature, wind speed and direction to fire control headquarters within six minutes of a blaze starting.
In Germany, where FireWatch was installed a decade ago, covering 2.3 million ha of pine forest, it has helped reduce the area of forest burned each year by a staggering 80 per cent.
Germany doesn’t have the sort of highly flammable eucalypts Australia does, so Goodrich isn’t promising the same figures here. But he says it is realistic to assume FireWatch could reduce the amount of area burned in Australia by at least half.
Since bushfires cause 30 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, by halving the amount of bush burned we could halve that figure to 15 per cent, while saving lives and property.
If the Government is genuinely serious about reducing carbon dioxide emissions, then it would do something to limit Australia’s bushfires.
Yet Goodrich and Neustadt cannot get state and federal fire authorities interested. Despite the fact the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund has enough money to allocate $80 million to community projects including walking tracks and bike paths, they can’t find an agency willing to stump up $75,000 needed for further independent trials.
Goodrich, 43, says he has been astonished by the resistance he has met. “It makes you feel like you’re going insane.”
A high-ranking officer at one rural fire agency told him: “We don’t need technology. We have people who can smell a fire when they’re going down the highway.”
Goodrich says he naively thought the technology was so demonstrably effective, it would be embraced in Australia.
Instead, “there is this belief system that a person with a pair of binoculars beats space technology. We’re not saying technology is a replacement for a human brain (but it is) obvious that the earlier the fire is detected, the earlier it can be extinguished, reducing the area burnt and the risks to life and property”.
Former Liberal MP Fran Bailey, whose McEwen electorate bore the brunt of the Black Saturday fires, tried to champion FireWatch. She went to Germany to see it in action, and convinced then prime minister Kevin Rudd to fund Australian trials.
But now Rudd is gone, Bailey has retired and Goodrich says the Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department, Roger Wilkins, has declined a request to meet Neustadt.
Unfortunately, the trial of three different fire detection systems, including FireWatch, conducted in NSW and in Victoria’s Otway Ranges last March, and endorsed by the federal Attorney-General, the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre and the CSIRO, was set up to be a flop, says Goodrich.
In part, that was because the forest and rural fire agencies that conducted the trial and provided the human firespotters had a vested interest in the outcome. They set up the exercise as man versus machine, says Goodrich, when the point of the technology is to help humans to detect and extinguish fires, not replace them.
“Naively, we didn’t smell a rat,” says Goodrich, who adds he realised the odds were against them only when the CSIRO would not allow FireWatch to set a test fire to calibrate the equipment.
Two of Australia’s leading bushfire scientists back him up.
DAVID Packham, a former principal research scientist in the CSIRO’s Victorian bushfire section, slammed the trial report and urged it be rejected.
“The trials were conducted outside the fire season (and the) trial protocols are woefully inadequate and need serious re-examination.
“(The report used) extensive selected use of data . . . leading to skewed and unreliable conclusions being drawn . . . (It) is just not robust enough to make any sound strategic decisions for or against automatic detection systems.”
Former DSE chief fire officer Rod Incoll found fault in the trial because it was not carried out during the peak bushfire season, only one of the fires involved in the trial was a wildfire,
and the systems were not fully integrated with the host agencies . . .
“It is clear from the 2009 fire losses that if forest fires are to be suppressed during extreme fire weather, then immediate and aggressive first attack is required. Remote sensing technology appears to be a way of improving the success rate of fire suppression in one of the most fire-prone locations on Earth.”
All Goodrich wants is a fair trial, and FireWatch is willing to come halfway with the cost.
He says that if the trial is as successful as he believes it will be, the savings in greenhouse gas emissions alone will make it worth the $300 million cost of setting up a FireWatch network in the bushfire-prone parts of the country.
The Government is about to lock us into a carbon tax at a cost estimated as high as $130 billion to cut 5 per cent of Australia’s emissions by 2020.
Here is an opportunity to cut 15 per cent of emissions for a comparatively paltry price, without the soaring electricity costs, and yet no one is interested.
Has everyone gone mad?