Protecting the health of Australians through improved bushfire smoke forecasting
The devastation of the 2019/2020 bushfire season put unprecedented stress on communities and response teams, and the memories of that smoke-filled summer will remain for years to come.
Smoke from bushfires can negatively affect surrounding populations due to the health risks associated with prolonged poor air quality. For individuals who are vulnerable to the impacts of smoke – including children, the elderly, and people with asthma – it’s an even more significant problem.
The extent of the 2019/2020 fires highlighted the urgent need for a national smoke forecasting system. CSIRO has responded to this challenge by working with the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) and many stakeholders to develop a national prototype AQFx smoke forecasting system funded by the National Recovery and Resilience Agency. The system will be used by authorities to help Australians minimise their smoke exposure.
What is AQFx?
AQFx stands for Air Quality Forecasting System. It is a forecasting tool for assessing air pollution impacts.
It was originally designed to be used for planned burns – to help land-use managers plan their fuel reduction burns, while minimising population exposure to smoke and particles. This version of AQFx has been in operation in Victoria since 2016, where it is run by the BoM.
However, during the 2019/20 summer AQFx was also used to forecast smoke exposure from bushfires, with this information being made available to emergency management centres and state environment protection authorities.
Now CSIRO is working alongside partner agencies to test potential extensions to the current operational AQFx system, making it more robust and accurate for prolonged bushfires. The eventual aim is for the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) to operate the system nationally.
According to Dr Fabienne Reisen, a principal atmospheric research scientist with CSIRO’s Climate Science Centre, the improvements that are currently under development will make AQFx a more useful and adaptive tool.
“During the 2019/2020 summer bushfires, many of the impacted states and territories became interested in AQFx,” says Dr Reisen. “But its capabilities were definitely stretched. The planned burns that the system was originally designed for tend to be much smaller and less intense in comparison with bushfires. If you look at something like the smoke plume rise, which is driven by the intensity of the fire, you’ll see that the smoke from a bushfire will disperse much further than the smoke from a planned burn. The improvements we’re making will take that kind of information into account.”
Providing vital information
AQFx is able to provide hourly and daily information on pollutants in the air, as well as 24–72-hour forecasts of expected air quality, next-day prescribed burn smoke forecasts for Victoria and NSW, and six-day ensemble fire weather forecasts.
It combines modelling capabilities with real-time information sourced through surface-based air pollution sensors, satellite observations and fire agency data feeds. This information is fed into a visualisation tool called the Air Quality Visualisation System (AQVx) to provide the best possible range of information about current and forecast smoke plume movements.
The system uses detailed information on smoke emission rates, smoke plume rise, smoke transport, and smoke chemical transformation to provide robust smoke forecasts– all of which enable decision makers to undertake real-time analysis of smoke impact times, and exposure, and tailor their decisions accordingly.
Helping stakeholders with informed-decision making
Close collaboration with key stakeholders in health, fire and environment agencies has been key to the success of AQFx, and those relationships are becoming even more important as CSIRO works towards a national deployment of the AQFx prototype system.
Kerryn McTaggart is a Smoke Management Project Officer with the Victorian Government’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), and believes that AQFx is becoming increasingly valuable as user feedback is taken onboard.
“The improvements are helping AQFx become more accurate, and we’re working with the researchers to ensure the tool is providing what fire agencies need. It’s especially beneficial for us to see not just what’s happening across the whole state, but what’s happening nationally.”
Accessing up-to-date, accurate air quality forecasts allows state and territory agencies to improve their public messaging, and in doing so helps communities minimise their exposure to smoke.
“A lot of the work we do is around communication,” says Kerryn McTaggart. “If we get accurate smoke forecasts as early as possible, that lets us work with organisations like the Bureau of Meteorology, and the Environmental Protection Authority Victoria to ensure we have good, consistent, targeted messaging going out to people and letting them know what to expect.”
“It’s also helpful from a fire agency perspective in broadening our focus. Often the immediate focus is on reducing the impacts of the fire front and embers on a community, and while that is certainly the priority, we also understand that the smoke impacts on people are a concern too.”
Empowering communities to minimise smoke exposure
As part of the National Prototype Smoke Forecasting Project, AQFx has been integrated into the AirRater app, which was developed by the University of Tasmania to help individuals make decisions and take action to reduce their exposure to smoke. The app is also being used in Darwin.
The app provides location-specific and near real-time air quality, pollen and temperature information. As part of this project, it will also start using crowd-sourced smoke observation and smoke-related symptom data to support AQFx validation.
For Dr Reisen, it’s enormously rewarding to know that AQFx is going to have tangible, real-world impacts across Australia.
“It has become very clear that we need a national system,” she says. “Obviously smoke knows no state boundaries. This project has really been designed with and for agencies – not just fire services, but health and environment departments too. We want it to be robust and well utilised, and we want it to be fit-for-purpose so that informed decisions can be made, helping to improve the health of Australian communities.”