Research Shows Escaping A Fire Is Similar To How You Escape An Ocean Rip

The CSIRO has released vision of potentially life-saving studies that could help to understand how bushfires work and help the Rural Fire Service fight them.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) released vision of bushfire testing completed with the NSW Rural Fire Service.

It’s this knowledge gained from testing like this that assists the Rural Fire Service in tackling bushfires more efficiently.

“Basically, the research is to understand the factors that influence the behaviours of fire so we can predict how fast they move and where they go,” Dr Andrew Sullivan told 10 daily.

Dr Sullivan studies combustion of bushfire fuel. Photo: Carl Davies, CSIRO.

Dr Sullivan is the leader of the CSIRO Bushfire Behaviour and Risks team which has been studying bushfires since 1952.

“We conduct experiments in the field, so we light real fries, and in the laboratory where we have a large combustion wind tunnel.”

The 25 metre long wind tunnel named the 'CSIRO Pyrotron' was designed by Dr Sullivan to repeatedly study the combustion of bushfire fuel under safe conditions.

So far, the results have shown there are two things that dictate how a bushfire will behave.

The CSIRO Pyrotron. Photo Carl Davies, CSIRO.

“That is the speed of the wind and the moisture content of fuel that’s burning. So the stronger the wind, the faster fire will spread and the drier the fuel, the more energy fire will have to spread faster,” Dr Sullivan explained.

While wind and dry conditions may seem like obvious answers, Dr Sullivan said there’s a key reason why they can’t rely on assumptions.

“To know it qualitatively is one thing but quantitative is the bit you need to know the answer for so you know how fast a bushfire will spread and where to.



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"Then if conditions changed we know how the fire will behave and what to expect."

The research is vital to protect life and property.

“We then develop tools fire agencies can apply during wildfire events to predict bushfire movements.”

A number of these have been developed over the years and can be seen in maps that show potential fire movements and weather forecasts showing wind speed and dryness.

This research helps create fire prediction maps like this. Photo: NSW RFS

“It helps everyone to be better positioned to know what to do in a bushfire event."

“People have to make decisions with fires in their neighbourhood. Understanding how fast bushfire spread and where they move will help people decide what route to take or when they need to go.”

Dr Sullivan said one of the common misconceptions about fire people have is thinking ‘the fire can go anywhere'.

“Fire will generally spread in direction wind blows it; however, it may be affected by topography.”

The grassfire grew from a tiny point within a minute. Photo: CSIRO.

Generally, fires won’t spread as quickly against the direction of the wind, so getting out of the way is similar to escaping an ocean rip – move parallel.

“If you had a fire bearing down on you, you’d go sideways to find the side of the fire for greater chance of surviving,” he said.

However, the research shown in the video at the top of this article indicates how quickly fire can move.

“This was a grassfire lit in gusty conditions and it spread 60 metres in 50 seconds, so you’ve got less than a minute to act,” Dr Sullivan said.

“In the last 20 seconds, it was spreading at a speed of 150 metres per minute. So we know fire starts off slow, takes some time to develop and starts to spread faster as it gets bigger.”

While Dr Sullivan believes having a greater understanding of bushfire is vital, the general public should turn to the Rural Fire Service for advice.

“The amount of information you require is quite extensive and rural fire agencies will do that for you so rely on their expertise.”