USC app to help citizens predict bushfire severity

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Researchers from the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) have secured an Australian Government Citizen Science Grant of almost $500,000 to design and implement a citizen science app for people living in fire-prone areas to predict the likelihood of bushfires. The app, called NOBURN (National Bush Fire Resilience Network), will be designed by citizen scientists from around the country, including people who hike, work and camp in forest areas, who will be encouraged to collect vital data in the form of photos and forest fuel samples.

The Citizen Science Grants are awarded for scientific research projects with a national impact that engage the public as citizen scientists and is part of the Inspiring Australia – Science Engagement Program. The NOBURN project will be led by Professor Mark Brown, Deputy Director of USC’s Forest Research Institute and Professor Paul Salmon, Director of USC’s Centre for Human Factors and Sociotechnical Systems. They will be supported by USC Research Fellow Dr Sam Van Holsbeeck and artificial intelligence (AI) experts at the Australian Institute for Machine Learning (AIML) at the University of Adelaide.

Professor Brown said the data gathered would be matched with satellite imagery and used to train AI systems to predict the probability, severity and burn area of potential bushfires. “While naturally occurring bushfires cannot be avoided, there is an opportunity with this project to predict their likelihood and implement strategies to minimise their impact on the environment, property and life,” Professor Brown said.

Professor Brown added that a range of factors determines the intensity and speed of fires, including fuel load, moisture, ignition source and wind; however, the methods to predict fire events and risk are complex and not easily accessible for residents in bushfire-prone areas.

Professor Salmon added that the NOBURN project will result in new knowledge being shared with key stakeholders, including fire authorities, forest professionals, landowners, key government representatives and residents living in fire-prone areas.

“Before a fire, the outputs can indicate high-risk bushfire areas and support community preparation for disaster resilience. Once there is an ignition, the AI model can quickly and more accurately predict the direction, extent, severity and boundary of the fire, allowing targeted and strategic interventions. This vital information can be used to inform forest management crews ahead of possible fires about the potential fire damage, severity and affected areas,” Professor Salmon said.

This program could help enhance Australia’s resilience to bushfires and make significant contributions to the academic community working in the areas of disaster preparedness and response. Professor Javen Shi, Director of Advanced Reasoning and Learning at AIML, is the AI lead on the NOBURN project.

“We are delighted this new grant will allow us to continue our already successful collaboration with USC developing new approaches for bushfire management. In this project, the citizen science NOBURN app will give us access to more data that can be used to train the AI,” Professor Shi said.

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