Research sheds light on unexpected behavior of Australia’s Black Summer bushfires

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Research from Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) has provided new insights into the destructive Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20, having discovered complex correlations between the atmosphere and extreme local bushfire behavior.

Led by BoM research scientist Dr Mika Peace, together with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, the research used advanced supercomputer simulations that combined bushfire behavior and meteorology reports to investigate why the Badja Forest (New South Wales), Green Valley Talmalmo/Corryong (New South Wales/Victoria), Kangaroo Island (South Australia), Stanthorpe (Queensland) and Yanchep (Western Australia) bushfires were so extraordinary and challenging to firefighters.

Peace said, “The research uses two linked models to help us understand the processes driving these challenging and destructive fires – one which simulates the fire and one which simulates the weather, so by combining them we can see how both the fire and weather change in response to each other. It’s only possible to research the fire behavior resulting from these interactions between the fire and the weather, such as extreme, local winds and rotating fire plumes, through work like this.

“As we learn and share these findings, we are able to apply our knowledge to future bushfires. Right now, we can use the findings to help fire behavior analysts and fire meteorologists recognize the conditions that lead to extremely dangerous localized bushfire behavior,” she said.

Research shows that the drought and heatwave conditions experienced in the lead up to and during all five fires were a key factor in priming the landscape for extreme fire behavior, but local weather conditions were also important when combined with the very dry vegetation.

Unusual fire activity occurred in the overnight period, when fire intensity and rate of spread is typically expected to decrease. Interactions between strong winds above the ground, topography and the fire plume circulation were key drivers accelerating surface fire spread at night.

“The conventional understanding of bushfire behavior will tell you that fire activity will decrease overnight as the temperature drops, humidity rises and winds become lighter,” Peace explained. “The modeling shows that very strong low-level winds descending to the ground behind the fire plume were a critical reason why the Badja Forest and Corryong bushfires burned so fast overnight.”

Pyrocumulonimbus (pyroCb) clouds or fire generated thunderstorms were a feature of the 2019-20 fire season and the number of pyroCb clouds recorded was an Australian record for one season. However, the five fires examined were not all associated with pyroCb’s, highlighting that it is not the sole weather phenomenon associated with extreme fire behavior.

The simulations show that the fire-affected wind near a fire plume can be much stronger than the background winds and that destructive winds can occur, including extreme fire-front winds and fire generated vortices.

“For the bushfires that occurred close to the coast – Yanchep in Western Australia and on Kangaroo Island – the combination of heatwave conditions, the temperature difference between the hot land and the cooler water and local topography led to complex winds that changed the bushfire behavior,” said Peace.

Sea breezes, the local environment, and other such conditions caused erratic, variable winds along active fire lines which at times stretched for several kilometers.

The bushfire simulations undertaken through this research use the Australian Community Climate and Earth System Simulator Fire (ACCESS-Fire) model and are run on the National Computational Infrastructure supercomputer in Canberra. The results show the benefits of enhanced simulation capability and supercomputer power. Due to the level of detail, data and computer power required it is currently not possible to model bushfire behavior like this when bushfires are burning.

The project highlights the complexity of the fire environment and fire management and shows how a coordinated multidisciplinary approach can make effective fire behavior predictions.

To view a complete version of the research report Coupled fire-atmosphere simulations of five Black Summer fires using the ACCESS-Fire modelclick here.

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Dan first joined UKi Media & Events in 2014 having spent the early years of his career in the recruitment industry. As editor, he now produces content for Meteorological Technology International, unearthing the latest technological advances and research methods for the publication of each exciting new issue. When he’s not reporting on the latest meteorological news, Dan can be found on the golf course or apprehensively planning his next DIY project.

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