Saving lives during bushfire season

How AI and mobile weather radars are being used to better prepare us for Mother Nature

Saving lives during bushfire season
Professor Hamish McGowan and Dr Adrien Guyot are using mobile weather radars to revolutionise how we track bushfires. Images: David Kelly

First published by The University of Queensland

By Chris Clarke

Professor Hamish McGowan in the bush with the mobile weather radar

Imagine a world where artificial intelligence could be used to stop bushfires in their tracks. A world where embers are monitored to give firefighters a precise idea of where they will land so that homes can be saved ahead of time.

As residents across Australia battle the start of extreme weather season, the researchers behind this world-first project spoke to Research News to explain how this technology could soon become reality.

The project ­– led by UQ’s Professor Hamish McGowan, from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences – plans to use AI to trace the movement of embers and deliver real-time "nowcasts" of extreme bushfire hazards.

The idea was initially pioneered during a PhD research project at UQ by one of Professor McGowan's former students Dr Nicholas McCarthy.

Extraordinarily, the project also aims to arm firefighters around the world with portable weather radars, offering immediate information about the firestorm around them.

“The aim of the project is to use this capability coupled with the likes of satellite imagery to understand how the fire is influencing the atmosphere and how the atmosphere’s behaviour is feeding back to the fire,” Professor McGowan said.

“At the end of the project we will have used a mobile weather radar that enables emergency response agencies to observe extreme fire atmosphere interaction in real time.

“They will also have access to national radar weather data, so they will have the capability to use both those tools to observe extreme bushfires.”

Professor Hamish McGowan with a mobile weather radar

UQ has teamed with the Bureau of Meteorology, parks and wildlife services, and to test the technology.

Dr Adrien Guyot from the Bureau is analysing data from some of the world’s worst bushfire seasons on record to see what can be learnt. has also provided the team with thousands of volunteers to help Dr Guyot assess the mountain of data from across several years.

He has used information from Australia’s Black Summer bushfires in 2019-20, along with recent wildfire events in the United States and France to help create an atmospheric radar map.

This will enable firefighters to better prepare themselves on the fireground by allowing them to predict wind changes and the spread of embers.

“Currently, with the weather radar rainfall map, you only see a tiny portion of what’s happening – a 2D view of what's happening” Dr Guyot said.

“With the radar you can actually see a full 3D image of the atmosphere. We can see those wind changes quite well.”

Australia’s Black Summer bushfires burnt an estimated 186,000 square kilometres of land.

At least 33 people lost their lives and fires destroyed more than 6000 buildings, as well as killing or displacing an estimated three billion animals.

For this reason, tracking embers will form a crucial part of the team’s work.

Professor McGowan said their predictive capabilities will be used to forewarn homeowners under threat – a breakthrough that could revolutionise the globe’s hazard detection systems.

“We’re using the radar to identify burning embers in the atmosphere that are being lofted by the fire and determining where those embers are being transported to,” he said.

“This will allow us to say ‘the town is located 15km downwind of a large fire, we can identify there’s a large wind carrying burning embers that may be able to spot or restart the fire’.

“So that early warning capability is really a key objective of this project, to be able to warn emergency agencies and people fighting the fire of an impending hazard.”

The remains of burnt out buildings in the New South Wales town of Cobargo in December 2019. Image: Sean Davey/Getty Images

Professor McGowan and Dr Guyot were the first researchers to take a mobile weather radar to an active fire in 2015.

They have since carried out testing during a controlled burn southwest of Toowoomba.

But three years of wet summers means further real world testing has been difficult.

Professor McGowan said once Australia’s latest La Niña weather event passes, the team – along with emergency crews around the country – could face an incredibly busy 2023.

“Once the landscape dries out, we’ll see there really has been a tremendous amount of fuel produced from the La Niña weather events.”

Pending the success of further trials, it is hoped that mobile weather radars will be introduced on firegrounds across the world to give firefighters the latest information about a blaze as it occurs.

The project runs until 2025.