The ingredients of a firestorm: how mathematics can be used as a weapon against wildfire


UNSW Canberra extreme bushfire researcher and mathematical scientist, Professor Jason Sharples, has dedicated his career to understanding the complex behaviour of bushfires.

The camera captures the red glow as it explodes up the tree line. The footage is shaky as it follows the flames. The wave of fire twists upwards, towering high above the forest canopy.

Embers fall and swirl in a violent dance across the camera lens like rain in a storm. But there is no moisture. It’s a scene suffocated by thick smoke and blinding firelight, sparring against the blackened sky.

The shape of the fire bends and bursts with an agility and intensity that is shocking. It swallows the tall forest trees in seconds.

The viral video, filmed by a photographer in New South Wales, is one of the many horrific events seen during Australia’s on-going bushfire crisis. An unprecedented and devastating summer where terms such as firestorms, pyrocumulus clouds and P2 smoke masks have entered the national vernacular.

It is these large and extreme firestorms – where bushfires become so catastrophic, they generate their own weather systems – that Professor Jason Sharples has spent much of his career trying to understand and prevent.

“To put it simply, I try to understand the conditions in which a small fire develops into a big fire and determine the chain of events and processes that leads to them,” Professor Sharples says.

“Because then, using mathematical models, you can forecast danger periods and areas where this is more likely to happen, so you can trigger responses to them and help prevent them.”

The Bundjalung man and professor in the Applied Industrial Mathematics Group at UNSW Canberra, researches the dynamic behaviour of wildfire, using complex equations and supercomputers to create predictive models.

These models consider terrain attributes, weather conditions and even the shape of fire as elements that can influence the likelihood of severe fires forming.

It is these types of extreme fires, he says, that cause the most destruction, are impossible to contain, and have unpredictable or unexpected behaviour.

“You can’t fight these types of fires…Your only real option is to evacuate and adopt defensive firefighting positions.”

A thirst to understand the natural world

Professor Sharples recalls being interested in science from a young age. It was an obvious interest, he says, because of his insatiable desire to understand the natural world. But it wasn’t until high school, after discovering Isaac Newton’s work, that everything suddenly clicked and made sense.

It was with Newton’s equations and laws that he suddenly realised the power of mathematics to explain the real world.

“It floored me. Honestly, it blew my mind,” Professor Sharples says of this epiphany.

He describes how this realisation – whereby an equation, something you can write down on a piece paper, can also be applied and used to predict the “future” – stopped him in his tracks. Mathematics could suddenly be a way to understand the very natural phenomena that had always transfixed him. It could be his toolkit to discover the world. He hasn’t looked back since.

Around the same time as he started to study mathematics at a higher level, Professor Sharples became a volunteer firefighter. It would be the clash of these seemingly opposite worlds where he would discover his true passion.

“I guess it was at that point my interest in mathematics and firefighting became aligned with each other,” he says. “I saw an opportunity where I could make a real contribution.”

On the frontline, Professor Sharples has seen his equations in action. As a firefighter, the fire is not just a line of code in a computer model. Its heat and ferocity are real, tangible and humbling. It’s a reminder of the real-world implications of his work.

Whilst he doesn’t have much time to be on the back of a fire truck these days, the value of being a firefighter is not lost on him.

“I think being a firefighter has helped me be a better researcher. Definitely,” he says.

Caring for Country

Professor Sharples has also been an advocate for supporting fellow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to go study mathematics and science. First Nations people make natural scientists, he says, because they always have been scientists.

“Aboriginal peoples have always been innovators and scientists; we’ve needed to be, to develop a successful way to live here for thousands and thousands of years,” he says.

“Innovation and ingenuity are a part of our legacy and our history as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, so we should be proud of that and continue it today.”

In many ways, he says, when it comes to fire and land management, Indigenous knowledges have been ahead of Western science.

Cultural burning – that is, fire burning using traditional Aboriginal methods and the knowledges from the “old people” – plays an important role, Professor Sharples says, not only from a fire risk reduction perspective but also as means to reconnect with Country.

“Cultural burning isn’t just about fuel reduction. It’s about the connection to Country and keeping Country healthy; it’s about the cultural ceremony.”

For Professor Sharples, combining traditional Aboriginal cultural burning practices and modern science is important, particularly as “climate change barrels down on us”.

Climate change, he warns, will increase the likelihood of extreme fires developing. This threat is created by both a predicted increase in dangerous fire-days due to climate change and the presence of a drier and more unstable atmosphere above the fires.

It is a fire’s interaction with the atmosphere above it which can increase the chances of these large firestorms developing from smaller fires.

For Professor Sharples, he will keep working towards understanding the complex and often bizarre behaviour of extreme fires using the mathematical toolkit he discovered back in high school.

“Then, hopefully, we can minimise or stop these big fires from forming in the first place.”

Earth from space

UNSW Canberra researchers ready to accelerate

Earth from space

A local ACT start-up company is launching to new heights after earning a position in the CSIRO ON Accelerate program. This follows recognition of its growth potential by the ACT Government through the Canberra Innovation Network when it was awarded an Innovation Connect (ICON) grant earlier in 2019.

Space Services Australia (SSA), the brainchild of UNSW Canberra Space researchers Drs Christopher Capon and Brenton Smith, is working towards keeping space safe through improving the reliability of miniaturised satellites.

“There are more satellites and constellations being launched than there ever has before. The problem is that too many of these systems are experiencing on-orbit system failures and contributing to space debris,” Dr Capon said.

“Our goal at SSA is to help reduce these failure rates, so that we keep space clean and companies can focus were it matters; helping improve peoples lives on the ground.”

When delving further into the issue, SSA noticed that a lot of space missions are working with a limited number of resources and to a fixed deadline. When a project is running behind schedule it is often the testing phase that gets scaled back.

“This is where SSA would come in,” Dr Capon said.

“We are working to streamline testing so that it is about working smarter in the timeframes that are available. The testing we are proposing would work through a combination of integrated system simulations (digital twins) augmented with real hardware data through a flight twin testbench that can stimulate a spacecraft to operate as if it were in space.

“This will enable users to catch faults earlier through frequent and rapid testing cycles. We can then connect with companies and help train and equip them with the tools they need so that they have confidence that their satellites will work on-orbit and, if something does go wrong, they have the best chance of fixing it.”

“We are extremely grateful to receive the ICON grant and to be part of the On Accelerate program. These opportunities will allow us to bring our research to a wider audience and really help cement the ACT as a key hub for the Australian space industry.”

“The amount of activity in space is only going to increase and reliability will be a problem. Through SSA and the support we receive at UNSW Canberra, we are ensuring that work undertaken is ethical and responsible and that space is being kept safe for this generation and the next,” he said.

ON Accelerate is a structured full-time accelerator for research teams to validate and develop high potential innovative new ventures. More information on the program can be found at the OnInnovation website.

UNSW Canberra Space is a world-class team with facilities to enable end-to-end space mission capability, supported by world-class space research and education. From its base at UNSW Canberra, the team play a leading role in shaping and developing the Australian space industry to meet global challenges.

If you are interested in connecting with SSA, please contact Christopher Capon at chris@spaceservicesaustralia.com.