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Science and experience combine for fire behaviour predictions

Michael Crook and Kevin Cooper crunch hundreds of pieces of data each day to produce fire predictions maps and intelligence.

Most residents living around the Dunns Road Fire have seen the fire prediction maps put out by the NSW Rural Fire Service, but few people have seen or heard of the people behind the maps.

Kevin Cooper and Michael Crook, affectionately called ‘fire nerds’ during one recent town hall meeting, are highly skilled Fire Behaviour Analysts [FBANs], who spend their days consuming vast amounts of raw data and turning that data into pieces of intelligence which the NSW Rural Fire Service can use to save lives and protect homes.

Kevin and Michael – and teams of FBANs around the country – take information like wind speeds, soil moisture ratings, weather forecasts and the occasional ‘drive’ down Google street view to predict where the fire will travel and how fast it might move. This allows the RFS to position its resources and crews in the best possible locations at the best possible times.

It’s not a perfect prediction, but Mr Cooper says he spent 40 years on the ground as a fire fighter, and he uses that experience to try to best protect his colleagues and the community.

“Because I’ve lived it, I know what it’s like,” said Mr Cooper.

“I’m pretty keen to make sure people aren’t in harm’s way.”

Mr Cooper was one of the first FBANs trained in Australia, roughly 10 years ago. Mr Crook has flown in from Minnesota, in the United States, where he works for the US Forest Service, specialising in hazardous fuels reduction. They work together, sourcing information from “an army of people,” including the Bureau of Meteorology, the Department of Primary Industries and, as mentioned, Google.

“Sometimes we might not have data about what kind of ground cover is in a certain area,” explained Mr Cooper, “So we take a drive up the street to look at the vegetation.

All of that information helps the FBANs to predict how fast a fire will move through a specific area and where it’s likely to go. They look at the big picture, turning information into usable intelligence.

“We have a lot of people looking at what’s happening tomorrow,” said Mr Cooper.

“I’m looking at what’s going to happen a week out.”

That foresight helps fire managers to prioritise their resources and evaluate the possible consequences of the fire reaching particularly dry or particularly leafy areas.

“It’s a mix of taking the science and using our on-the-ground experience and being able to explain that for the people out there, so it can be used on the ground,” said Mr Crook

“We’re crunching numbers based off the weather. Our job is to turn that into something they can use on the ground.”