Published: Gary Hughes, The Australian

KEVIN Rudd will be asked to help fund an Australian trial of an automated German bushfire detection system based on technology developed for NASA to map the surface of Mars.

Federal Liberal MP Fran Bailey, whose Victorian electorate of McEwen covers many of the communities devastated on Black Saturday, said the digital sensing system could detect blazes from up to 40km away within minutes, and could be vital in preventing bushfires.

She said she would ask the Prime Minister to provide partial funding for a trial of the Firewatch system developed by the German Aerospace Institute, which she saw in operation during a trip to Europe to study bushfire prevention.

Ms Bailey told The Australian she would also be advocating radical fuel reduction methods used in Portugal and Germany, where vegetation is cut back for 10m on each side of the roads to provide safe escape routes.

European countries made saving lives the top priority in their forest fire strategies, Ms Bailey said. “Their thinking is the opposite of what we have been doing in Australia,” she said from London, as she neared the end of her month-long European study tour.

“When I tell them there are local government authorities in Australia that will not allow people to clear around their homes and have prosecuted people for removing dead wood on roadsides, they look at me as if I’d just arrived from outer space. They take fuel reduction very seriously.”

The Victorian bushfires royal commission has been told 21 people died in or near vehicles or on roadways on Black Saturday after being caught by firefronts as they tried to flee.

Ms Bailey said the German remote Firewatch system, which uses electronic camera sensors on unmanned towers, had reduced the amount of forest burnt in parts of that country by more than 90 per cent.

The system, which operates around the clock, can automatically detect small plumes of smoke from up to 40km away, pinpoint the location and estimate the size of the fire.

Ms Bailey said she would brief Mr Rudd on the system after she returned home at the weekend.

The move came as Victorian Premier John Brumby warned that his state could be facing a catastrophe similar to the Black Saturday fires, which killed 173 people on February 7, in the coming bushfire season.

A leaked report from the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment says low winter rainfall has increased the likelihood of a fire season “with the greatest potential loss to life and property”.

“We may be lucky, we may get a wet winter and a wet spring and we may have a relatively good fire season, but all of the advice at the moment is that this will be as bad, if notworse, than anything we’ve seen in the past decade,” Mr Brumby said.

Published: Gary Hughes, The Australian