on February 4th, 2020

Australia’s fire season has been the most damaging in living memory. The skies have been tinged red by the earth-scorching fires that have burned up about 12 million acres of land in Australia.

The bushfires, which are usually observed between October to March, have been raging since September 2019. They are the worst in the country’s history. Each state has been affected in a variety of ways, but it is New South Wales and Victoria that have been most severely hit by the fires.

As Australia picks up the pieces, while still blazing fires as temperatures soar, engineers are both assisting where they can and wondering how to prevent another disaster like this in the future. Each engineer in every engineering discipline could use their technical studies to the country’s benefit to mitigate future fire events.

Back in 2016, a Research Scientist at IBM, Anna Phan, asked the question: Can we outthink natural disasters? IBM’s artificially intelligent systems could be a potential solution to future flare-ups in the bushfire season in Australia.

On an article posted to LinkedIn, she wrote, “At IBM, our researchers are applying science and technology to tackle problems like predicting which areas and properties are most at risk of bushfires, investigating evacuation plans in hypothetical scenarios, or recommending the best evacuation route in a crisis.”

One of the elements of fire spreading that IBM had to account for as they began their research in 2016 was ember attack. Ember attack happens when burning foliage, twigs, and other flammable materials become airborne after gusts of wind. Larger fires create more embers. Therefore, Australia has seen runaway fires continue to develop.

The civil engineering implications in the aftermath of the fires could be significant. Updating building standards with future fires in mind will be imposed.

Ian Weir, Head of Landscape Architecture at the Queensland University of Technology, who is researching bushfire-affected architecture, spoke to NPR. He explained that in Australia, conventional homes that do not comply with the latest building standards are more flammable. A remedy for that has been cutting away vegetation to create buffer zones for properties. However, with embers spreading over the landscape, conventional homes catch fire in any case. Hence the need for future retrofitting and construction regulations to protect properties from fires in the future. 

Newer automated technologies can play a part in prevention, mitigation, and disaster relief.

Anna Phan writes, “By using big data and analytics such as fire spread simulations and traffic modeling, IBM’s researchers have also developed an evacuation planner. This can provide answers to how long it will take to evacuate an area, the impact of road blockages and what shelters are available to help town councils and emergency services better prepare for bushfires.”

Electrical engineers will also be learning vital lessons for future disasters, as the bushfires have threatened electricity distribution. In New South Wales, the bushfires blazed through a link connecting the state’s electricity link with Victoria. Some transmission lines were reduced to rubble which led to pleas from the government to limit power consumption.

Two substations in the Snowy Mountains region were closed, causing 900MW to be lost from the grid - but impressively, electrical engineers managed to keep the lights on thanks to emergency backup sources of power. However, there were some regions, specifically from South Nowra to Moruya, Tumbarumba, and others where power was non-existent due to the ravaging fires.

The crisis is ongoing and will be remembered for years to come. However, the resiliency of the Australian firefighters during this crisis will be most remembered. The world will continue to celebrate them. Their job is not yet complete as they continue to battle fires, which are expected to continue burning. Moreover, the heroic stories of everyday Australians’ survival will number in the thousands after the dust has settled on these bushfires, and each deserves an equal measure of attention.


Works Cited

Hersher, Rebecca. “Australian Fires Prompt Questions About Protecting Houses From Embers.” NPR, NPR, 7 Jan. 2020, www.npr.org/2020/01/07/793991736/australian-fires-prompt-questions-about-protecting-houses-from-embers.

PhanFollowResearch, Anna, and Anna PhanResearch. “Can We Outthink Natural Disasters?” LinkedIn, www.linkedin.com/pulse/can-we-outthink-natural-disasters-anna-phan/.

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