Meet our researcher exploring where the wildfires are

By Tim ConnellNovember 3rd, 2020

With a view of bushfires from the ground to the air, CSIRO scientist Matt Plucinski wants Australians to learn from the other crisis of 2020.
Two people in protective clothing by a fire

Dr Matt Plucinski (right) is a CSIRO researcher and a volunteer with the NSW Rural Fire Service.

If the Black Summer is no longer, in the minds of Australians, the defining crisis of 2020, to speak with CSIRO bushfire researcher Dr Matt Plucinski is to comprehend not only its scale but its texture.

Almost a year on, some figures smoulder in the memory. Thirty-three people dead, as many as 30 million hectares burnt and, according to a WWF-funded study, three billion animals killed or displaced. As destroyers of wildlife, the bushfires belong in the company of the Exxon Valdez and BP Deepwater Horizon oil spills. But the crisis also mobilised a fire-fighting effort to defend the continent, as smoke filled satellite images and billowed across the sea.

For Plucinski, a senior scientist with more than 20 years in bushfire research and a volunteer NSW Rural Fire Service firefighter, the dread of the summer was writ large in his haze-shrouded adopted home of Canberra.

Residents of the nation’s capital, used to opening their windows to an easterly breeze on summer evenings, were instead hunted indoors by smoke from the NSW South Coast. Postcard towns like Eden and Batemans Bay became evacuation flashpoints, and specks on the map like Cobargo were household names. Further southwest, massive fires in the Snowy Mountains devoured the landscape.

“The word of the summer was ‘Unprecedented’. The NSW Rural Fire Service magazine that came out after that summer had the word ‘Unprecedented’ on the cover, and it certainly was,” says Plucinski.

“People will say there’s been larger areas burnt in other seasons, but they’re generally in drier environments and grasslands and desert sort of areas. In terms of forest, this was certainly unprecedented. This was an extraordinary amount of area, and you just watched it progress down the coast from Queensland to Victoria.”

Sparking an interest in fires

Plucinski obtained his PhD in 2003 from the University of NSW, where his thesis focussed on defining ignition thresholds in heathland fuels. It seems, now, like a natural progression. He had grown up in a leafy Newcastle suburb and spent much of his childhood playing in the remnant bushland where there was “the odd fire in there for a kid to have a stickybeak at and fossick around”. In a time before detailed online forecasts, he developed a keen interest in the weather, and the effect the wind could have on the hours he spent in the surf.

In 2004 Plucinski joined the CSIRO Bushfire Behaviour and Risks group, focussing on fire suppression and the use of aircraft. State authorities wanted to know more about the effectiveness of expensive waterbombing aircraft – which, at the time, ranged from small helicopters to Erickson Aircranes – including the situations in which they should be used.

A man looking at a fire experiment - a big flame in a lab

Dr Matt Plucinski’s work focuses on understanding wildfires in Australia, particularly on fire suppression and the use of aircraft.

Since then Plucinski has studied wildfires as they are suppressed, finetuning data collection methods that have been used operationally and for training and planning by state agencies. It was his team’s scientific evaluation in 2010 that prompted the Victorian government to stop using the DC-10 air tanker. In January 2020, as firefighting aircraft swarmed above Canberra, Plucinski observed the tactical and technological evolution as one of Australia’s foremost experts on attacking fires from the air.

Plucinski has found that aircraft can be highly effective during an initial attack, even if they are thought of by many decision-makers as an expensive remedy for fires that may end up being inconsequential. But their effectiveness at containing fires that grow beyond that threshold has yet to be confirmed. The uncertainty makes it “difficult to not throw resources at a fire” when communities are at risk, says Plucinski, and more research needs to be done on the usefulness of aircraft at different stages of bushfires.

“I can sum up my entire research career in a sentence, if you like,” he says, dryly.

“Small fires are easier to put out than big ones. When there’s any fire potential, it’s all about getting to fires quickly, when they’re small. There are just so many variables to deal with.”

More than most Australians last summer, Plucinski knew the fires were burning the country in ways it hadn’t been burnt before. The effects were widespread, with areas consumed that are normally too wet to burn, and recently-burned areas that would normally stop fires’ progress having little effect.

Last summer’s binary arguments on social media – and, framed as culture wars, the national media – pitting climate science against calls for fuel load management missed the point, says Plucinski.

“It’s really both of those things. I don’t know why it became so polarised,” he says.

“It’s quite apparent that things have changed and droughts have become more severe, but there’s also a lot to be learned in the fuel reduction space from a suppression point of view. People don’t appreciate how much harder it is to suppress fires in heavier fuels.”

Man in a burnt field releasing a drone

Dr Matt Plucinski studies wildfires as they are suppressed, finetuning data collection methods.

Looking to the future, living with fires

As Australians continue to struggle through coronavirus restrictions, do they also need to fear that last summer was a glimpse of the new normal?

They certainly won’t see Black Summer conditions every year, says the CSIRO bushfire researcher, and the coming summer will be gentler. Many places hit last time have since had their average rainfall or more, which points to a grassfire season of “one day wonders” rather than the dry forest bushfires caused by swathes of the country being tinder dry at once.

Still, Victoria’s Black Saturday tragedy of February 2009 stands as a reminder that one or two days of “off the scale” fire danger can erupt in an otherwise normal fire season. And climate change will continue to bring droughts like that of 2019-20, which made the fuels highly combustible.

It’s a summer Plucinski says Australia must learn from, even as the world lurches through one of its defining health crises. For many Australians the sight of roiling fires in California in the northern summer, and San Francisco cloaked in that familiar red, were reminders of our own recurring trauma. Six of the golden state’s 20 largest recorded fires have happened this year. In terrifying ways, this is becoming a different planet to the one we are used to living on.

“People have forgotten about it a bit because of the COVID situation, but every Australian summer has the potential for bad fires,” Plucinski says.

“I hope we never see one with as many as we did last summer.”

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CSIRO supports effective cross-cultural partnerships, working with Indigenous and ranger groups to manage Australia’s landscape through fire. Does this spark your interest? Read more here.

11 comments

  1. As a long time resident in the Dandenongs, I have “skin in the game”! There are also the political factors to consider in addition to fuel loads and climate change. Working in DELWP for many years, I was encouraged to see some use of Indigenous Cool Burns in parts of Victoria. Also the “first attack” strategy by EMV, where an aircraft may be dispatched and reach the site of a fire before the ground crews. All of these are great initiatives, but to deny the use of LATs and VLATs in an ever increasing fuel load and drying environment? There are areas in the Sherbrooke forest that have many tonnes per acre of fuel and are surrounded by communities. Cockatoo is once again well covered in vegetation and fuel amongst it’s community and Gembrook is the same. Funding cuts for amongst agencies, arguements between State and Federal Govts, adverse weather conditions for fuel reduction burns and now the introduction of a unionised paid Fire Rescue Victoria into a well established CFA largely volunteer network. These are all elements that will add to the confusion and finger pointing at the end of the season. Councils seem unable to control dangerous trees falling on their road network and killing drivers, let alone be effective in clearing roadside vegetation – a drive through Cardinia and Yarra Ranges is a frightening experience as it dries out. These are all lessons learnt many times and repeated. It’s just the gap between Royal Commissions that vary! As it is often said in fire aviation, rotary, fixed wing SEAT, LAT or VLAT – they are all tools in the box. I don’t care what you call it, as long as it arrives when I smell smoke! Global Super Tanker (Boeing 747) can lay a trail of Phoschek 3 kilometres long and perform multiple separate drops due to it’s pressurised tank system, in the right circumstances, it will and has, saved many lives just as any small tanker. 10 Tanker (DC10) has operated here successfully over a variety of vegetation and terrain. Check out the estimated costed of last years fires and loss of life by the Insurance Council of Australia – surely the cost of aircraft is not the question here? I hope Matt can keep an open mind on this. Great article, unfortunately we will see another season sometime in the future like the last due to some of the points made above.

  2. Those who choose to live where fires have the greatest explosive potential make their choice, as do millions of people in the US. The climate has been what it is. Therefore, you can’t glibly blame The Black Friday bushfires of 13 January 1939, in Victoria; that said, I have no doubt the decreasing pollution is both a life-changer but also, the political will seems too transparent. Moreover, as a one-liner, and taking nothing away from courageous firefighters and the good CSIRO doctor, many are “ants in a furnace”. Unless others with better ideas and technologies come into fire management, the bush will always burn. The choice is not to be there; I know, easier said than done, but intelligent input is needed, and beyond sending a water-tanker or an aircraft to, as if it were, empty an ocean.

  3. What was the reasoning for convincing the government to ditch the use of the DC-10 aerial tankers in 2010?

    Wish you elaborated on that part….. plenty of cases where large water bombers have saved houses, peoples lives, livestock and put significant dents in fire fronts. Surprised anyone would argue against their usage.

    Keen to hear what the advice was back in 2010 if CSIRO want to do a follow up story.

    1. Hi Rupert,
      We’ve followed up with Matt on the question of the DC10 – here is his response.
      ‘Thanks for your question. The reasons for the recommendation against the use of the DC-10 air tanker are outlined in this report: https://www.bushfirecrc.com/sites/default/files/managed/resource/dc-10_evaluation_final_report.pdf. The evaluation was undertaken using criteria set by the Victorian fire agencies and only applies to the airframe and delivery system of the DC-10 airtanker tested at that time.’
      Kind regards,
      Kate Cranney.

  4. Jeep up the good work Matt

    1. Ugh I mean “keep”

  5. The challenge for scientists in assessing the effectiveness of aerial resources beyond initial attack. It is easy to get results about early dispatch, early suppression, success. But beyond initial attack additional factors like political and social pressure come into play. Fire fighting with aircraft has a big “wow” factor and the pressure to keep aircraft flying in deference to their effectiveness really becomes a factor. Unless weather factors make aerial response completely unsuitable, pressure to keep flying, using inappropriate fire fighting media for direct attack, and to be seen by the affected community that the fire services are trying to do everything to suppress the fire, regardless of effectiveness. This is a reality for fire managers every time a fire gets beyond initial attack. Social science research on the impacts to communities and their wellbeing maybe should be a factor for consideration in the analysis of aircraft effectiveness. This could possibly help measure the value to the major beneficiary of any suppression strategy, the community, reserve or asset, rather than just measures like area burnt, properties saved etc. What we have seen in the last 30 years is the expansion of the aerial fleet and size of aircraft. This was due to initially the effectiveness of aircraft type intertwined with early dispatch effectiveness, based on experience and research. The desire now to supplement the fleet with very large air tankers may have little to with suppression effectiveness and reducing the size of a fire and cost effectiveness of suppression. It is more to be seen using a resource that is more palatable to a demanding society wanting government to protect them.

  6. Yes, I too would be curious to know why Matt deemed the 10Tanker (DC10) unsuitable? Here in Victoria we are highly unlikely to be revisiting the old Govt buy back of land otherwise Marysville, Kinglake, Noojee and Cockatoo might all be on the list! As for innappropriate fire fighting media, that does unfortunately sit with the Govt. Phoschek will wipe out any aquaculture and is not safe for use near rivers, streams and water catchments. PyroCool is a product that can be used safely but is “not on the President’s approved list of firefighting chemicals” So both State and Federal Govts will not allow it to be used here, yes that’s right, U.S. calls the shots on what we can and cannot use! As mentioned in a previous post, I’m not picky as to whatever aerial assets will save lives and property and with Covid, perhaps an increase in aerial assets might make up for the number of sick or exhausted ground crews. It’s evolution, some thought the night waterbombing (rotary) introduced by EMV as too dangerous but here we are! I am comforted that NAFC have let a tender for additional rotary aircraft for this season. Personally, I’d just like to see some monitoring and accountabilty on the clearing of roadside vegetation, dangerous trees and the tonnes of fuel sitting close to towns – you would think with three levels of Government that this could be achieved – but maybe that is the problem to begin with!

    1. Hi Adrian,
      We’ve followed up with Matt on the question of the DC-10 – here is his response.
      ‘Thanks for your question. The reasons for the recommendation against the use of the DC-10 air tanker are outlined in this report: https://www.bushfirecrc.com/sites/default/files/managed/resource/dc-10_evaluation_final_report.pdf. The evaluation was undertaken using criteria set by the Victorian fire agencies and only applies to the airframe and delivery system of the DC-10 airtanker tested at that time.’
      Kind regards,
      Kate Cranney.

  7. Thanks for the reply and report. Good reading and I guess that iswhy now NAFC insists on tracking being installed on all aircraft. I wonder if a similar evalution will or has been conducted on the next generation LAT 737 at 15,000 litres?
    Regards, Adrian

    1. Hi Adrian, we’re not aware of future evaluations.
      Thanks and have a good day, Kate.

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