When it comes to bushfire behaviour, weather plays a powerful part. Conditions such as wind, heat and humidity can be determining factors in how ferocious a fire is and what the outcomes are.
To ensure the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) is prepared for all weather conditions such as cyclones, floods and storms as well as natural hazards, it works closely with the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM).
BoM Meteorologist Joey Rawson is embedded with DFES and sits in the heart of the State Operations Centre (SOC), where strategic State level support is provided for ongoing emergency operations and large scale incidents.
“I’m the liaison point, giving DFES the latest weather information as it comes to hand so they can prepare,” he said.
“In this role, understanding how DFES works and what emergency services do on a day to day basis is imperative.”
During a large scale bushfire incident Joey provides weather briefings for DFES and looks at conditions such as wind, temperature and humidity that will affect the bushfire behaviour. BoM also prepares spot forecasts which are detailed forecasts specific to that site or area.
One of the biggest fires Joey has worked on was in late September 2016 when a bushfire caused by a lightning strike burnt through the northern heart of the Kimberley, destroying 1.7 million hectares. At the time he was working in the SOC providing daily weather briefings and advice to DFES.
“There were a lot of thunderstorms in the area but they weren’t producing any significant rain which would stop the fires from progressing. Instead they produced wind gusts of up to 80 kilometres per hour which caused the grassfires to keep changing direction,” he said.
“Using the weather information I provided, DFES was able to make the necessary plans and deploy staff to areas where they might be needed in case the situation worsened.”
DFES State Operational Situational Analysis Officer (SAO) Paul Southam said it was invaluable having a meteorologist working closely with emergency services, especially during bushfire season.
“It has made a huge difference having a meteorologist here at DFES who can work closely with us during bushfires,” Paul said.
“A lot of work goes on behind the scene in preparation for what we call blow up days – days when the risk of fires is high.
“We’re normally looking at potential weather conditions four or five days out. Having Joey in here means we can know what’s going on in advance and prepare.”
In his role as SAO, Paul monitors all Statewide operations across Western Australia looking at emerging and potential risks.
If bad weather is expected or if there is an increased risk of fires preparation could involve pre-emptively calling in or deploying personnel across the State.
DFES also uses bushfire simulation software to predict fire behaviour, based on information such as weather conditions, fuel loads, moisture, vegetation and topography.
“Having spot weather forecasts for areas being impacted by bushfires is essential in producing these simulations and predicting the fire’s behaviour,” Paul said.
“This in turn enables incident managers to work out the best strategies for firefighters on the ground, so that they can work to save the communities in the fire’s path.
With another challenging bushfire season ahead, Deputy Commissioner Lloyd Bailey said it was crucial that West Australians were prepared in the event of a bushfire.
“DFES and BoM work together to do all we can to help protect communities but people also need to prepare themselves. Year after year we see catastrophic bushfires across the country and yet an alarming number of people living in bushfire prone areas are not prepared,” he said.
“Having a five minute Fire Chat with your family about what you’ll do if a bushfire threatens your home and your life is vital.
“You also need to be aware of the weather and your surroundings, stay connected to your community, talk to your neighbours, listen to ABC radio and take action for your safety at the first sign of a fire or emergency.”