Fit-for-purpose satellites on the cards to help Australia's bushfire response

Dr Marta Yebra says Australia needs to be providing more accurate details to firefighters from information taken from satellites. Picture: Jamila Toderas
Dr Marta Yebra says Australia needs to be providing more accurate details to firefighters from information taken from satellites. Picture: Jamila Toderas

Australia's firefighting capacity would be better served by dedicated satellites launched to detect fires and provide real-time information to firefighters, experts say.

ANU Institute for Space mission specialist and senior lecturer in environment and engineering Dr Marta Yebra has been using satellite imagery to help map fire spread predictions for the NSW Rural Fire Service since November, and in recent days the ACT Parks and Conservation Service. She views satellite imagery and determines the moisture levels on the ground, and potential fuel loads.

Dr Yebra said Australia currently has no satellites in space, so the imagery and information she's been using comes mainly from NASA satellite data, and satellites from other countries.

"They are providing useful information, it's better than nothing of course, they are useful but we could do better if we had our own that is fit for purpose," Dr Yebra said.

"Australia doesn't own any satellite at the moment, it doesn't have any mission at all... This means we rely heavily on external resources from other international space agencies."

Dr Yebra said while in principle there is nothing wrong with this, they are not dedicated for bushfires surveillance and aren't designed to capture the specifics of Australia's Eucalypt forests, so the information is not as good as it could be.

She said while a stationary satellite would be very expensive for Australia and not a short-term solution, a fleet of cube-sats could be the answer.

"If you have a train of cube-sats, let's say 200 cube-sats orbiting Australia you could have both the spatial and the temporal resolution that you need for active fire detection."

Dr Yebra said there had been discussions over the past two years about how better Australia could use space technology for fighting bushfires, fuel condition monitoring and fuel moisture content.

Australia doesn't own any satellite at the moment, it doesn't have any mission at all... This means we rely heavily on external resources from other international space agencies.

The NASA MODIS satellite imagery being used to determine fuel moisture content to predict fire spread has limited ability to, basically, zoom in on specific areas. The Sentinel 2 satellite has improved quality but it's sensor lacks suitability for the conditions.

"Eucalypt forests have a very peculiar spectral response," Dr Yebra said.

Dr Yebra said last week that the Orroral Valley fire was burning through forest that was very dry and drought stressed.

The left picture is a fuel load map from 2015. On the right is the fuel load last weekend, noting the blue, which normally represents moisture, is in fact caused by smoke in that image.

The left picture is a fuel load map from 2015. On the right is the fuel load last weekend, noting the blue, which normally represents moisture, is in fact caused by smoke in that image.

"At the moment it looks extremely dry, even the forest has moisture content values below 68 per cent, which is really very, very low. The forests are normally around 100 per cent and they don't change much in their moisture content over time because they have deep roots to access water. Given we've been through this drought for this long, even the forest is really stressed."

NSW Rural Fire Service senior fire behavioural analyst Laurence McCoy said Dr Yebra had been important in validating their predictions.

"From our perspective, statewide there has been recent patchy rainfall and it is sites like Marta's that help us to actually detect the risk, or give us more detailed analysis in terms of the effect of that rainfall," Mr McCoy said.

He said the satellite technology they use now is "incredibly important" in their situational awareness and understanding of fire escalation.

"In our unit in particular, we've got a significant appetite for the use of new technology and new research."

Australia Space Agency deputy head Anthony Murfett said following this disastrous bushfire season, the agency has been tasked by the federal government to work with CSIRO, Geoscience Australia and the Bureau of Meteorology "to look at how space-related Earth observation resources can better support bushfire preparedness, response, and resilience in the future".

"This will complement CSIRO's broader work supporting Australia's bushfire response," Mr Murfett said.

This story Fit-for-purpose satellites on the cards to help Australia's bushfire response first appeared on The Canberra Times.