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 Australian summer.
Bushfires are already raging in northern Australia, and the fire season has come early to parts of Queensland ravaged by flood after a winter of lush grass growth from all that water.
But, as ever, Australia is locked into the dramatic hero-to-the-rescue mode of bushfire management rather than the more prosaic art of bushfire prevention. Failure to perform adequate hazard reduction of bushfire-prone areas to remove fuel has long been identified as a major factor in out-of-control conflagrations.
But now comes an extraordinarily sophisticated surveillance device that can detect the whiff of smoke from as far away as 60km, and allow 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 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 acquired by a company run by former Stasi agents – men with a proven interest in surveillance. Finally, 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 onsite 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 in a grid network covering 2.3 million hectares of pine forest, it has helped reduce the area burned each year by a staggering 80 per cent.
Germany doesn’t have highly flammable eucalypts, 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, halving the amount of bush burned could halve that amount, not to mention saving lives and property.
If the government is genuine about reducing carbon dioxide emissions then it would do something to limit Australia’s bushfires. Yet Goodrich and Neustadt cannot get Australian state and federal fire authorities interested in FireWatch.
Despite the fact the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund has enough money to allocate $80 million to walking tracks and bike paths, they can’t find anyone willing to stump up the $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 thought the technology was so effective it would be embraced. Instead “there is this belief 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,” he says.
Former Liberal MP Fran Bailey, whose McEwen electorate bore the brunt of Victoria’s Black Saturday fires – with 169 of her constituents killed – tried to champion the FireWatch system.
She went to Germany to see it in action, and convinced then-PM 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 refuses to meet him.
Unfortunately, the trial of three fire detection systems, including FireWatch, conducted in Tumut, NSW, and Victoria 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, Goodrich says.
In part that was because the forest and rural fire agencies which conducted the trial, and provided the human firespotters, had a vested interest in the outcome.
They set up the exercise as man v machine, when the point of the technology is to help humans, not replace them.
“Naively, we didn’t smell a rat,” says Goodrich, who only realised the odds were against them when the CSIRO would not allow FireWatch to set a test fire to calibrate equipment.
Two of Australia’s leading bushfire scientists back him up.
David Packham, a former principal research scientist in the CSIRO’s bushfire section, urged the trial report be rejected: “The trials were conducted outside the fire season [and the] protocols are woefully inadequate.
“[The report used] extensive selected use of data … leading to skewed and unreliable conclusions.
“[It] is just not robust enough to make any sound strategic decisions for or against automatic detection systems.”
Former Victorian 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 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 then immediate and aggressive first attack is required,” he says.
“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.”
Incoll recalled a fire tanker driver he spoke to in 1983 after a fire that started at a roadside pole went on to incinerate the Victorian town of Macedon, killing six people and destroying 234 houses.
“He said he only needed 10 minutes more to halt the fire. This is an example of how detection technology could justify the investment required,” he says.
All Goodrich wants is a fair trial. In NSW he has identified a site at the bushfire prone area of Terrey Hills.
He says, 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 Fire-Watch network.
The Gillard government is about to lock us into a carbon tax at a cost estimated as high as $130 billion to cut five 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 Australia gone mad?