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Fire Management Practices using Spatial Information Tools

Rees Bunker

Manager Spatial Information
NSW Rural Fire Service
3/175 James Ruse Drive
Rose Hill 2142
Phone number: 02 8845 3565, Fax number: 02 9638 3336
Email address:


Bush fire management in New South Wales is changing. The use of digital information, computers and, in particular, geographic information systems (GIS) is helping to modify the way in which the Fire Services of NSW approach the threat of bush fires. GIS is being used increasingly by fire services and land management agencies for operations, planning and mitigation activities. The NSW Rural Fire Service has undertaken many new initiatives using GIS and has had to come to terms with the determination of a mapping system, establishing a base set of data, developing standards and training personnel to make use of this technology. The use of spatially related information will lead to better land management practices in fire fighting and mitigation and will ultimately lead to cost savings for the agricultural community.


Many aspects of rural life have changed over the last 25 years. Methods of cultivation have become more environmentally friendly, crop and livestock species have expanded and improved the quality of the final product, and on-farm management have seen dramatic changes. Many of these can be attributed to advances in technology and a shift in focus to more sustainable forms of agriculture.

Figure 1 Tanker trailer on farm

Figure 2 Community equipment

The way in which bush fires are managed has also seen dramatic changes over this period of time. There has been a shift in focus from farm based resources to a community based resource with a resulting change in fire fighting equipment from individual pumps, tanks and tanker trailers to dedicated vehicles that are housed in brigade stations. Brigade personnel have also changed with a focus now on formal training and personal protective clothing rather than learning by experience and the concept of turning up when you see smoke which resulted in many volunteers arriving at a fire in shorts, singlet and thongs. Communications have improved with the introduction of more efficient tanker radio networks, command frequencies and fire-ground radios.

Figure 3 Improved communications and PPE

Not only have the fire ground activities changed, but the methods of command, intelligence and strategy have also seen major modification. These changes have occurred for a variety of reasons. One of the most significant is the cost of uncontrolled fires to the community. In the period between 1967 and 1999 bush fires have cost the community a total in excess of $2.5 billion, with an average cost per year of over $77 million. Of all natural disasters in Australia, bush fires have the highest proportion of deaths and injuries with 223 deaths and 4185 injuries for the same period. (Bureau of Transport Economics Report 103) These figures do not include the many thousands of fires where losses were less than $10 million, which would significantly increase the costs. Potential losses “saved” by an efficient fire service are incalculable.

To help alleviate the severity of wild fire, the NSW Rural Fire Service, has introduced the concept of management plans for coordinated fire operations and risk. They are produced at a local level by Bush Fire Management Committees with representatives from all land management agencies.

Resource and funding allocations have also been a major concern due to a lack of solid information and the varying amounts of money that individual local governments were willing to contribute to fire fighting within their areas of jurisdiction. A methodology, called Standards of Fire Cover, has been developed to help rectify this problem.

It was found that for all of these solutions, spatially related information was critical in understanding and interpreting the problems at local, regional and State levels. To this end the RFS embarked on a programme to collect base data and develop methodologies so that local districts could develop their plans utilising basic GIS principles.

Spatial Information General


The Rural Fire Service chose MapInfo as its preferred software prior to 1994 due principally to cost and ease of use, at that stage there was very little availability of comparable desktop mapping packages. District staff have found it to be easily learnt and you don’t have to be a GIS specialist using it every day to make use of it. There are also extensions available that enhance its capabilities.

Data Acquisition and Availability

The majority of base data is sourced through the Land Information Centre, Bathurst, as a division of the Land and Property Information Portfolio. The Centre provides topographic layers, cadastre, Geographic Names Board database, satellite imagery, aerial photography as well as access to other government department spatial data under licence. Other data sets are provided by Local Government, NSW State Forests, National Parks and Wildlife Service, Department of Land and Water Conservation, Australian Heritage Commission and NSW Fire Brigade.

Table 1 Data Held by NSW Rural Fire Service

Land Information Centre

NSW Rural Fire Service


Station Locations



Orthorectified aerial photography

Automatic Weather Station Locations

Digital Elevation model xyz format

Brigade Boundaries (incomplete)

Scanned orthorectified topographic maps

Stratnet Tower sites

Geographic Names Board - Place names of NSW

Regional Boundaries

Landsat 7 orthorectified imagery

NSW Fire Brigade

Australian Heritage Commission

Fire District

Register of National Estate Database

Station Locations

Department of Land and Water Conservation

National Parks and Wildlife Service

Soils types

Atlas of NSW Wildlife

Western lands vegetation

Eastern Bushland Data base

The availability of data and its quality, from all sources, has improved dramatically and will continue to do so as the focus shifts from traditional paper maps to digital data. There are, however, some data sets that are still very difficult to obtain. For example, accurate vegetation and soil maps are simply not available from one source. This will improve with time but currently it is necessary to amalgamate data from many sources to obtain an overall data set.

As a non-revenue earning government department, the Service budget has not been able to acquire data at commercial rates, so the quantity of data initially available has been limited. The situation has improved markedly over the last few years with a change in policy by other government departments. This has allowed the provision of most data requirements through all levels of the Service.


Since the District staff have been employed, and therefore controlled for their day to day work, by local government, it has been very difficult, if not impossible, to set standards that everyone can meet. However, many are making use of MapInfo and have adopted the suggested standards for directory structures, line, symbol and colour styles and table contents that will enable greater exchange between the levels of the Service. Both users and administrators have derived these standards with the Service adopting them as standard operating procedures.

There were some difficulties, due to local government funding limitations, which have resulted in multiple versions of the software being used on a variety of hardware configurations. Not all of these being suitable for desktop mapping of any kind! With the move in July this year of the District staff to State Government employ, many of these problems will be overcome. A direction can be set for corporate acquisition of software and hardware.


Many of the Districts utilise the abilities and interests of volunteers to supplement their own staff. In many cases this has extended into the field of spatial information and has allowed a wider distribution of skills within the organisation. Many of the staff at management levels have yet to make use of the benefits that spatially relating information brings. They do not need to be GIS experts but rather users of the information that has been manipulated for them. Training of GIS manipulators and viewers is therefore required.

Training in the software, and GIS in general, has been undertaken at two levels. Firstly, the vendor has provided some training at a District level using general introductory and advanced courses. These have not been favoured due to the lack of relevance to the end uses and the costs being prohibitive. In-house introductory courses have been run successfully across the State using examples that relate specifically to the fire applications.

Secondly, encouragement has been given to Districts within Regions forming user groups. Where they have been established, meetings are held regularly with specifically identified topics covered. For example sessions have been held on GPS integration, Risk plans, Operations plans, printing, etc. This has enabled more advanced and specifically targeted training that has achieved a higher level of knowledge and skill in the individuals concerned. It has also addressed corporate issues by ensuring the skill levels are adequate to complete the required tasks.

Risk Management

Bush Fire Management Committees, comprising representatives of Fire Services, National Parks and Wildlife Service, State Forests, Nature Conservation Council, Farmers Association and Brigade volunteers, have the responsibility at a District level to produce a risk management plan. The plan aims to reduce the occurrence of fire and protect community and environmental assets as well as life and property.

The Bush Fire Risk Management Plan seeks to identify the level of bush fire risk across a Bush Fire Management Committee’s area and to target strategies that the responsible land managers may implement to manage the bush fire risks identified.

To properly direct bush fire risk management plans, it is important to accurately identify the level of bush fire risk, that exists within a Committee area. This involves analysing the following components:

  • Bush Fire Hazard Defined as the potential severity of a bush fire. Bush Fire Hazard is influenced by the vegetation, slope, and weather conditions.
  • Community Assets For the purposes of this document, Community Assets are defined as those assests which have social and economic values. They include:
    - life and property - human life, property, buildings and infrastructure associated with populated areas; and
    - economic assets - timber, tourist destinations and lands used for primary production.
  • Environmental / Ecological Assets: Includes: natural assets - features or areas such as landscapes, catchments and natural communities; and
    - cultural assets - areas of prehistoric or historic significance, dating from Aboriginal and European occupation.

The evaluation of hazards, and community and environmental assets leads to the development of risk management priorities. The Bush Fire Risk Management Plans concentrate on managing the priority risk areas.

The Bush Fire Risk Management Plan determines what bush fire risk management strategies need to be implemented in each of the priority areas.

Bush Fire Risk Management Strategies generally fall within one of the following categories:

  • Avoid the Risk - By deciding not to proceed with the activity likely to generate the bush fire risk
  • Reduce the Hazard - Programs to reduce the level of fuel available to burn in a bush fire
  • Reduce Ignitions - Programs to reduce the number of deliberate and accidental man-made ignitions
  • Reduce Vulnerability - Programs to increase the resilience of community and environmental assets to bush fires.
  • Residual Risk - After risks have been reduced, some residual risks may still exist, which may need to be managed with fire response strategies.

Once bush fire risk management strategies are established, the plan identifies which land managers are responsible for implementing these strategies. The land management agencies identified are required to:

develop bush fire risk management programs to implement the management strategies identified in the bush fire risk management plan; and

implement their programs

The Bush Fire Risk Management Plans also establish mechanisms for monitoring whether the bush fire risk management programs developed by land managers have been successfully implemented.

A large amount of community consultation is involved in the process with much of the information coming from brigade members and statutory authorities. As figure 5 shows, there is a large amount of information required to produce the plan, which without some form of computer based mapping could not be achieved.


The term “Operations” relates to all activities the Service carries out in the direct protection of life and property. The Service is responsible for providing fire protection for just over 99% of the total land area of the State. It excludes the Greater Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong areas and some 184 major towns, which are covered by the NSW Fire Brigade. The responsibility is therefore for a diverse range of fire types from the traditional bush and grass fires to property protection, vehicle fires and rubbish tips.

The Service, due to the large size of the volunteer base (over 50,000), is often called upon to assist other agencies where a skilled and disciplined force is required. It has been utilised for the Nyngan floods cleanup, Warringah Storms, the Sydney hail storm and countless other storms as well as search and rescue, the Olympics and many other events. In recent years the use of spatially related data has made the allocation and tracking of the resources deployed much easier. It has also been used for incident reporting and situation monitoring.

Operations plans

Like Risk Management plans, Operations plans are required under legislation to be produced by Bush Fire Management Committees at a local level and are designed to be used when a coordinated form of fire fighting is required. The plan sets out the procedures for fire detection, suppression and management when more than one fire authority is involved.

The aim of this plan is to detail requirements for coordinated fire management practices,

for the protection of:

  • life and property,
  • community assets and values,
  • natural and cultural heritage,

and to decrease the severity and intensity of wildfires

The committee must undertake the following actions so that a comprehensive approach is directed to fire management planning.

(a) Develop coordinated detection and suppression response systems on all land tenures.

Provide procedures for effective fire detection and advice on the fire situation to member agencies.

Develop a fire danger alert and preparedness system for member agencies.

(b) Develop effective liaison and communication between all participating authorities.

Provide an incident control centre for coordinated fire operations

Provide communication systems that allow effective information sharing for fire management activities.

Ensure regular Committee meetings are held, prior to the fire season and immediately after the fire season, and when necessary for planning and procedures development.

Provide statistical information from fire reports in accordance with the Coordinating Committee Guidelines.

(c) Ensure planning occurs to identify and respond to the fire problem in the area.

Each member agency will address its response capabilities and regularly report to the Committee its current situation.

The Committee will identify areas of concern that it believes may affect the ability of the member agencies to carry out appropriate fire protection measures.

(d) Implement procedures that will allow effective co-ordination of the fire fighting authorities and support organisations in the event of any class of fire.

Identify experienced and capable Incident Controllers and incident Management Team members.

Develop and maintain an incident control system.

Initiate appropriate training and exercises for all levels of member agencies to carry out co-ordinated operations in Class 2 and 3 fire incidents.

Identify contacts and resources of fire fighting authorities and support organisations.

(e) Develop awareness amongst the community regarding the on-going extent of the fire problem.

Maintain regular contact with the media to provide opportunities for community education and coverage of fire incidents.

(f) Provide fire suppression with due regard for ESD principles.

Employ suppression techniques, which minimise damage to natural and cultural heritage values.

Again, the planning of operations relies on accurate, up to date and relevant mapping information. The plans must also include maps showing

1. Land tenure boundaries

Fire paths

Special Evacuation Areas

2. Water Serviced Areas – show areas that are well serviced by town water, dams, rivers etc and areas that are poorly serviced.

3. Access maps – particularly for new development areas or changed land tenure.

4. Special Hazards – military ordnance testing sites, gas pipelines etc.

5. Significant Heritage / Cultural sites

6. Aircraft Landing and Service areas

7. Resource Dispersal – location of agencies resources, tankers, dozers, graders etc.

8. Detection Coverage / system – fire towers, lookouts, vantage points etc.

Communications Coverage – black spots, poor communication zones

Remote Sensing

New South Wales is no small area and during the six months from October to March many fires ignite in areas that are either not readily accessible or where there is insufficient population to record their presence. Two forms of remote sensing are utilised to provide fire tactitioners with the information required. This information is used to monitor and implement suppression plans on a Statewide basis.


Through close links with the Bureau of Meteorology and the Queensland Department of Natural Resources the Service is provided with processed information showing the location of possible and confirmed fires. This information is valuable for a broad overview but is not yet reliable enough to use in isolation. Advances in processing will enable more accuracy and confidence in interpretation.


Where more accurate information is required the Service utilises a Daedalus 1268 line scanner. The common platform for this has been a Lear Jet which is cost effective in area covered and provides a more stable platform when used at high altitudes. This combination allows large fires to be accurately located and plotted.

More recently we have used a Cessna 414 which is better suited where information is required in a small area and where information can be processed as close to the fire ground as possible. The scanner has some major advantages over other devices in that it can detect small variations in temperature, which are useful in obtaining the location of smoldering objects, and can remove the effects of dense smoke that often prevents “eyeball” observation.

Standards of Fire Cover

The aim of any standards of fire cover approach to the allocation of fire fighting equipment is to determine what level (standard) of fire fighting resources is necessary to provide an acceptable degree of protection (fire cover) to a particular area given the fire threat to that area.

To implement this aim it is necessary to clearly define and quantify exactly what is meant by fire threat. In doing so, it is simply not possible to plan for the worst possible scenario and the level of threat protected against, needs to be limited to some extent.

Information about the area covered by a particular brigade, its current level of equipment, the level of management within the brigade and the extent of training available to brigade members will form an integral part of the process. Since most of the information required is based on individual brigades, spatial relationships can play a major role. Allocation of resources is then possible based on sound data rather than an historical approach.

The Future

The use of spatial information in the Rural Fire Service is advancing more rapidly than most other areas of fire management. This is due to the fact that fire managers can see that, through the use of relatively cheap desktop computers and mapping software, many fire analysis, planning and mitigation tasks can be performed with more accuracy and with greater reliability than was ever possible before. Development in a number of areas is now taking place in Australia and overseas that will make GIS and the spatial integration of all forms of data, THE tool for the future of fire fighting.

Fire Spread Models

Forest and grass fires are of no concern unless a number of factors come into play. These are fuel quantity and degree of curing, weather conditions and terrain characteristics. None of these by themselves leads to a major conflagration but all must be present at the same time. Since all are geographically located the potential for use in geographic information system is evident.

There are a number of fire spread models adapted for use in geographic information systems currently being used in Europe and the Americas but none of which can be applied directly to Australia. Some research into this area has been undertaken by CSIRO with funding from the Australian Fire Authorities Council (AFAC) but has not been given a usable front end. There is a need for an application to be written that can utilise all the applicable fire spread models available along with readily available mapping data in common formats.

Weather Models

Over the last 3 years the NSW Rural Fire Service has been working in conjunction with the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) and The University of New South Wales in the development of a pilot weather modeling program that determines a forecast for a very small area (mesoscale modeling). The mesoscale high resolution model (HIRES) also incorporates the effects of local topography on the movement of air and therefore produces forecasts that are more specific. Current models used by the BOM run twice daily over the Australian region. HIRES will be used over a range of smaller areas specified according to where the fire potential is highest.

Research is currently being undertaken to couple hydrology models, which examine the movement of water, to the HIRES model. It is hoped that this action will enhance the results of both the weather forecasting capability and the expected runoff after fires.

Utilising this model in the fire-spread model will greatly enhance the planning of bush fire incidents and the safety of fire fighters

Smoke Management

The direction, altitude and degree of dispersal of smoke is a developing concern particularly close to major centres of population. There have been a number of major incidents that can be directly attributed to combinations of smoke from hazard reductions combining with moisture resulting in poor visibility and high particulate pollution levels. Again research is currently being undertaken to understand the movement of smoke and other particulate clouds which will have a significant impact on when and where burning occurs.

Real Time Mapping

The integrated use of GPS, GIS and some form of communication is just beginning to be used. We will see greater reliance on GPS positioning of fire fighting vehicles without the need for personnel intervention. This will hopefully reduce the likelihood of fire fighter deaths and injuries related to fire impingement. It will also greatly aid the ability of fire managers to use resources to their optimum.


Spatial information is being used in many aspects in the Rural Fire Service. Continued applications will be developed as the technology and applications advance.

Rural Australia will see the benefits indirectly as a result of improved fire management practices, which will result in social and economic benefits for all.


Please use the following example citation styles for journal and conference papers:

Amdahl Gary. (2001). Disaster Response – GIS for public Safety. ESRI Press

Bureau of Transport Economics. (2001). Economic Costs of Natural Disasters in Australia: Report 103. 21-55.

NSW Rural Fire Service. (2000). Bush Fire Management Risk Planning Guidelines

NSW Rural Fire Service. (1998). Bush Fire Management Operations Planning Guidelines

NSW Rural Fire Service. (1993). Toward a Standard of Fire Cover

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