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Monitoring bushfires

January 29, 2019

Nowhere in Australia is immune from bushfires, but some places are deemed safer than others. The block of land I live in south-western Western Australia is relatively safe (no trees near the house, lots of hardstand surrounding the house, etc.), but nearby (within one kilometre) are high-risk areas of bushland and homes on hilly land that is just covered in trees, grasses, and native plants. I have a fear of bushfires, so over summer I listen for aircraft activity beyond what’s normal (‘normal’ is maybe a couple of light aircraft a day) and check various websites etc. to assess the danger. The risk on some days is worse than on others—particularly those days with strong easterly winds and high temperatures, and if there’s been no rain for weeks. Once the wind swings around and comes from the west, I start to breathe easier as the danger to my property from that direction is much less.

Here are some of the local and national sites I use to check various conditions and situations, in case it helps others who live in Western Australia:

  • a weather site (wind speed and direction, temps)
  • the Emergency WA website (https://www.emergency.wa.gov.au/) for all sort of emergency reports in the state (the zoom-in feature is great)
  • the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (dfes_wa) Twitter feed for updates and links to emergency situations (https://twitter.com/dfes_wa)
  • occasionally the MyFireWatch website (http://myfirewatch.landgate.wa.gov.au/) and the Sentinel website (https://sentinel.ga.gov.au/)
  • FlightRadar24 (https://flightradar24.com; there’s an app too), which is a plane spotter’s goldmine, but which I use to identify planes and choppers going overhead (most are just standard light aircraft, the RFDS planes, and the rescue chopper), but occasionally they are firefighting aircraft.

This sort of monitoring was not possible just 20 years ago. Google Maps and the ability for services to overlay other satellite data and create instant warnings has changed the game. Technology working for good!

The image below is a screenshot I took from FlightRadar of two firefighting aircraft battling a bushfire near Collie on 20 January 2019. By clicking on the aircraft icons on the map, I get the information on the left about the aircraft and the flight paths for the past hour or so.

Flight paths of two firefighting aircraft helping put out a fire near Collie, Western Australia

Update 5 February 2019: We had a bushfire close to our place (within 5 km — too close for comfort!) and I found that the FlightRadar24 website gave me accurate, real-time information on what the firefighting aircraft (including the massive air crane, ‘Georgia Peach’ [N154AC]) were doing. The Emergency WA website was only being updated every few hours, but with FlightRadar24 I could see what sorts of resources were being deployed to control this fire. And from the flight tracking I got some questions answered, like whether ‘Georgia Peach’ could refill from the ocean (she could)—she actually refilled her 7500-gallon tank at least 10 times (it takes her about 45 seconds to do this, which is pretty amazing). In the first screenshot below, you can see ‘Georgia Peach’ heading down from Perth and taking on her first load of sea water just off Myalup. In the later screenshot, you can see that she’s made the first of many sorties to refill off Binningup. The two Dunn Aviation aircraft (yellow water bombers) can’t take on sea water, so had to return to Bunbury Airport each time to refill with their fire suppressant, adding precious time to their ability to be effective. The Rotowest chopper circled the whole time—I suspect it was the spotter aircraft guiding the others where to best deploy their loads.

2 comments

  1. Hi Rhonda
    I’ve been following your blog in an editorial capacity for some time and have only just realised you’re in Australia, which I’m sure is poor background reading on my part. I’m a British editor but since March last year my husband and I have been over here in Oz doing the Big Lap in a motorhome. It’s certainly a change from editing! We’re making our way back to Sydney now – we go home in March – and are currently in Bright, VIC.
    Your post stuck a chord with me – we had no understanding of how real the threat of bushfires is until recently. A few weeks ago we were driving through a small farming town and heard a siren. When we asked someone what it was and he told us it was the call to the volunteer fire crew to attend an incident, we immediately downloaded the VicEmergency app. Just before I read your post we heard the siren again here in Bright. Terrifying. Checking the app, I can see where the fire is – it’s a small one about 10km away – but it is still very frightening. The use of apps and other online data must be a huge help to everyone in comparison to only a few years ago when the technology didn’t exist.
    I’ve picked up some great tips from your blog, and we’ve loved our adventure here. I’ll be following with renewed interest now I have a better idea of where you are! 😀


  2. Unfortunately, I don’t think sirens are used much here anymore. They were a feature of my childhood and early adult years in country towns. But there were no sirens at all when we lived in a town in 2009 and a bushfire came really close. Now, I live too far out to hear a siren (I’m 9 km from the nearest town centre).

    Enjoy the rest of your trip!

    –Rhonda



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