As my tenure as CEO of Natural Hazards Research Australia came to an end in June this year, I can now look back over the achievements of the various research centres with a degree of nostalgia and pride.
I see how the emergency management and response sector has changed from where it was almost 20 years ago. I can see some of the critical science and technology changes pioneered by the research centres and the policy and practice changes that resulted.
This means the community is so much safer and resilient to the inevitable impacts of natural hazards as a result. However, it’s important to note future impacts have not been eliminated, particularly with the increasing frequency and severity of natural hazard events because of climate change, and we still have more to do as a nation.
I am a physicist by training, with a strong focus on nuclear and solid-state physics; I had spent 13 years in Telstra moving from failure analysis of electronics, through opto-electronics and photonics to online services, AI and software engineering.
I transitioned into research strategy and management at the Telstra Research Laboratories, where I was involved in innovation and the management of Telstra’s external R&D investments, including in Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs). The step for me to be part of a CRC was natural in some ways, as I had been involved in many CRCs, but this was in a totally foreign topic area.
When I first started in the emergency management sector in February 2004 as Research Director of the newly formed Bushfire CRC, I was greeted by whole new cohort of people dedicated to public service and keeping our communities safe. That has not changed over the past 18 and a half years – individuals have come and gone but the ethos and belief are still here no matter who is undertaking the role and that’s why it has been a great sector to have been involved with.
Since then, the various research centres I have been involved with and led – the Bushfire CRC, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC and most recently Natural Hazards Research Australia – have provided new knowledge, systems and thought leadership to the sector.
In looking back over nearly 19 years in the emergency sector, what have we collectively learnt and adopted, and how is the community safer?
A particular highlight has been at least 250 new PhD-qualified researchers who have benefited from the knowledge networks and funding from the various centres now employed in the sector. In addition, we have developed better warning systems, modelling and prediction capabilities that have demonstrably saved lives.
We better understand the role that fire and flood play on our ecosystems, we understand how communities view risk and how to build better in at-risk areas, we have learnt how to value some of the intangible aspects of our lives. We better understand our volunteers, how we can ensure that our response capability can be maintained and enhanced through better recruitment, retention and reward systems. The list goes on, with around 400 individual projects completed in this time, some involving one person and many multi-person and multi-organisations.
At the end of summer 2004 when I started in the sector, the country was coming out of horrendous years for bushfires with various inquiries under way following the fires that burnt into Canberra, New South Wales and north-east Victoria. Little did we then know that things would get much worse.
What we had in place then was a disjointed and ageing research sector feeding the emergency services and competing for scarce resources. The Bushfire CRC was established to help to bring together a national research capability for bushfire, in a country acknowledged as one of the most fire-prone in the world.
At that time, we had little understanding of how social sciences and humanities could inform the way communities behave in the face of the growing threat. Social sciences were just starting to be applied in the USA as a discipline in fire and the CRC followed suit.
At that point we didn’t have an understanding of how people had died in bushfires over the years; yet this was needed to critically understand what was then known as the Prepare, Stay and Defend, or Leave Early Policy.
Some of the early work of the Bushfire CRC filled this gap and helped to underpin the findings of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, which had been seriously considering recommendations that would have seen mandatory evacuations as the common approach, potentially leading to the loss of thousands of homes to future fires.
The work of the CRC however showed that the biggest predictor of survival of houses was the presence of people to extinguish small spot fires; it also showed, validated or updated the advice around bushfire survival for homes and those caught in vehicles.
The 2009 Victorian Bushfires, known as Black Saturday, were watershed events for the nation. At that time, the country did not have a computerised prediction system in place to inform the community of where the fires would be; the system still relied on manual calculations.
A core outcome of the CRC was having prediction systems embedded in control centres, providing more accurate data for the emergency services and community. Alongside this, the work of the social scientists helped to craft the way in which messages were delivered, particularly taking into account the rise of social media. It was important that the psychology of how the messages were presented, the language used and the positioning of text were understood. Over the years, this has contributed to the National Warnings System now in place in Australia, which is credited with saving many lives.
Over the period of the various research centres in which I have been involved, we have seen increasing capability in computing, remote sensing and communications, which has enabled the sector to embrace satellite, airborne, drone and other data, enabling better decisions. In particular, the understanding of the flammability, load and structure of fuels and the impact of fires on the environment and on our built assets has greatly improved over the past 10 years. This new information enables better preparation for, response to and recovery from major natural hazard events.
This new data has enabled researchers in Australia to better understand the dynamics of extreme fire behaviour, identifying landscape-scale phenomena not appreciated before. This has led to a better understanding of the interaction between high-intensity fires, terrain and the atmosphere, and to be able to understand how these fires can create their own weather, and under what conditions. This new understanding has now been transferred to the Bureau of Meteorology, which can issue ‘red flag’ warnings for potential pyrocumulonimbus (fire-generated thunderstorms or PyroCB) development. These PyroCB have the capacity to create massive wind events over a fire, putting firefighters in great danger.
In the north of Australia, the hazard scape is very different, and the CRCs and centres have been investing in Indigenous-led research to understand the disaster resilience of remote and regional communities.
The centres were also involved alongside other instrumental public-benefit research centres such as the Tropical Savannahs CRC and the Desert Knowledge CRC in the development of the science underpinning the fire abatement projects now common across the north of Australia, which are reducing Australia’s carbon emissions, and creating revenue for First Nations communities to undertake culturally important land-management, in turn leading to better biodiversity and social outcomes.
This Northern Australia project investment over the best part of 25 years has only been possible because of the national CRC program and its ability to invest in long-term projects. It has spanned multiple CRCs with different focus areas but has built the required networks to build a new industry in the north.
In effect, the strength of the national research centres I have been involved with has been the ability to bring together end-users and researchers in multi-disciplinary teams to address national-scale problems.
From my viewpoint, it has been a great and instrumental period for research into natural hazards in Australia, albeit somewhat relentless at times. However, having now secured ongoing research funding for the sector from 2003 to 2031, it was well worth all the effort and has been possible because the sector is lucky to have had, and continues to have, many great people within the centres, agencies, departments and other research organisations, who have worked to ensure the right research has been done to yield tangible changes to the ways we protect communities.
All of this has saved lives and helped the environment. We are often critical of our leaders at times of disasters, but we all should also be thankful for their focus, investment and commitment to learning and driving science-informed policy and practice, which have saved lives, assets, environments and our economy many times over what the research cost.
This is not the end – we have a lot more to do. If the events of 2019–2020 – the bushfires from Queensland through NSW and Victoria and South Australia, the multiple flood events of 2021–2022, and the heatwaves in Europe – tell us anything, then we are in for a very difficult time in the coming decades as result of the impacts of climate change.
The way of life we have enjoyed in Australia is at risk.
Where we live and play, where and how we build our towns and critical infrastructure, how we look after our environment will all need to change.
This will impact on national, state and local governments, and of course the communities they serve. What is clear is that we do not have all the knowledge and science we need to meet this challenge yet, but we do have a plan and a centre that now has the mandate to address this – Natural Hazards Research Australia. It can and will continue to build those multi-disciplinary networks we need to address the wicked problems we face as a nation.