With climate change set to increase the scale and frequency of large-scale fires in Australia, researchers have released a new handbook on bushfire risks and prevention to reduce injury and death among firefighters tackling these natural disasters.

The book1 was written as a result of research led by Dr Greg Penney from Edith Cowan University, who was a strike team leader from Western Australia during the 2019/20 Black Summer bushfires which burnt an estimated 18.6 million hectares and destroyed around 5,900 homes.

In the book, titled A Handbook of Wildfire Engineering, Dr Penney examines the critical components of bushfire response including firefighting strategies, protective procedures for use during a burnover, operational risk management and creating urban design resilient to bushfires.

“The principles discussed in the Handbook can be used to improve community and urban design, assist in identifying the fire service resourcing needs of local communities, enhance firefighting vehicle design, and assist in identifying appropriate wildfire suppression tactics, strategies and logistics. Experts with the appropriate level of knowledge and experience will be able to use the textbook for guidance in these areas,” Dr Penney said.

Protecting our brave firefighters

Despite a large number of inquiries and reviews into bushfires in Australia, bushfire risks are still real and unresolved. Nearly half of all first responder fatalities were firefighters over the past 20 years, while bushfires resulted in the highest number of injuries overall, Dr Penney said.

“Despite 242 formal inquiries and reviews into Australian natural disasters since 1927, and more than 62 international post-incident investigations following firefighter fatalities or injuries during wildfire entrapment and burnover, volunteer and career firefighters continue to be injured or killed in the line of duty in alarming numbers.”

The book itself was written during the Black Summer bushfires which saw nine firefighters die trying to tackle the immense blazes.

“Firefighting will always remain an incredibly dangerous occupation, but we need to re-examine how we prepare and respond to bushfires in order to keep our communities and our firefighters safe,” Dr Penney said.

Dr Penney was motivated to conduct the research that subsequently led to the handbook by the destruction he had seen during his 14 years of experience as a firefighter in rural and metropolitan areas.

“As a career firefighter, in addition to my own local experiences in the wildfires of Margaret River in 2011 and Yarloop 2016, during the 2019 NSW deployment I witnessed first-hand the devastating effects of wildfire on firefighters and the communities, survived near miss entrapments and nights spent on the fireground cut off by fire behaviour and falling trees,” He told Lab Down Under.

Serving alongside volunteer and career firefighters who risked their lives in the line of duty, Dr Penney felt more could be done in terms of safety.

“Through my experience in the fire service and my previous studies in risk and fire engineering, I felt that firefighter safety and operations could be improved by research in the areas I’ve identified.  It is my hope that my research will both assist firefighters return safely to their families, and help improve the resilience of communities in the rural urban interface.”

Bolstering safety and resilience

The handbook traverses a range of topics on bushfire risks and prevention, each building on each other, starting from fuels and fire behaviour and moving through to suppression, protection and risk management.

While the book is comprehensive, Dr Penney said three key takeaways were not to underestimate the severity and threat posed by large bushfires, the realisation that appropriate urban design and town planning was critical for keeping communities safe, and that more research was required in the field of wildfire engineering for improved firefighter safety, community resilience and bushfire suppression in the face of worsening fire seasons.

Dr Penney first conducted research on fire engineering in his MSc and MEng2,3,4 and later expanded this during his PhD5,6,7,8.

“My studies were centred around the themes of firefighter safety and improved wildfire suppression.  I typically applied a fire engineering approach to the problems, which hadn’t necessarily been applied before in the context of wildfires,” he told Lab Down Under.

This research was combined with his 14 years of experience as a firefighter in both rural and metropolitan areas to create the book.

The book also extends to bushfire prevention, addressing improvements in urban design which boost firefighter safety and community resilience.

These topics remain crucially important given climate change will further increase the bushfire risks our communities will face, he said.

“Climate change is ultimately resulting in longer and more severe bushfire seasons, while fire behaviour is also more difficult to suppress. Mega wildfires are a global problem that is unfortunately here to stay.”

The book itself is available to be downloaded for free on the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre website.

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1 Penney G, Habibi D, Cattani M. A handbook of wildfire engineering: guidance for wildfire suppression and resilient urban design. Bushfire & Natural Hazard Cooperative Research Centre, Victoria, 2020, 978-0-6482756-8-8.

2 Penney G, Stevenson R. Modelling of the radiant heat flux and rate of spread of wildfire within the urban environment, Fire 2019, 2(1), 4.

3 Penney G. Exploring ISO31000 Risk Management during Dynamic Fire and Emergency Operations in Western Australia, Fire 2019, 2(2), 21.

4 Penney G. A Review of Evidence Based Practice in Fire and Rescue Operations in Western Australia, Technical Rescue 2013, 65, pp68-70

5 Penney G, Habibi D, Cattani M. Improving firefighter tenability during entrapment and burnover: An analysis of vehicle protection systems. Fire Safety Journal, Volume 118, December 2020, 103209.

6 Penney G, Habibi D, Cattani M. RUIM – a fire safety engineering model for Rural Urban Interface firefighter taskforce deployment. Fire Safety Journal, Volume 113, May 2020, 102986.

7 Penney G, Habibi D, Cattani M. (2019) Firefighter tenability and its influence on wildfire suppression, Fire Safety Journal 106, Volume 106, June 2019, Pages 38-51.

8 Penney G, Habibi D, Cattani M. Calculation of critical water flow rates for wildfire suppression, Fire 2019, 2(1).

Featured image: Picture by Julie Clarke from Pixabay. Used under the Simplified Pixabay Licence.

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