by Justin Leonard – Bushfire Adaptation Research Leader, at Australia’s National Science Agency, CSIRO

CSIRO’s Bushfire Adaptation research leader, Justin Leonard, explains how Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, is working with industry to tackle a major threat to critical infrastructure – bushfires.

Bushfires are one of the biggest threats facing all industries that rely on critical infrastructure. Telecommunication towers are vulnerable to damage from bushfires and storms.

Yet they play a critical role in connecting communities to help us through these extreme events. So telecommunications companies are seeking ways to reduce the risk of bushfire damage, improve their network resilience, and support the  customers who rely on their services.

CSIRO has teamed up with Optus to better understand where the risks of fire damage are to its network. Our work will also help prioritise upgrades to reduce its vulnerability in future bushfires.

The resilience challenge

With Australia facing a future of extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change, building resilience is the key to Australian communities resisting, absorbing and recovering from natural disasters such as bushfires.

Our research has shown that every dollar the government invests in climate adaptation or disaster risk reduction saves between $2 and $11 in recovery. It’s a challenge that requires a collaborative, integrated approach, a coordinated effort, and the knowledge and capability from a wide range of professional and scientific disciplines.

Since mid 2020, CSIRO and Optus have collaborated to assess the bushfire “loss potential” of all relevant Optus sites across Australia and determine best-value upgrades to reduce hazards.

We’ve studied and systematically profiled the potential and nature of impacts of embers, radiation and flame on and around Optus’ sites with telecommunications equipment. We have used these learnings to assess which sites were most at risk, and which site design and maintenance changes should be Optus’ commercial priority.

Spotting the hazards

The study involves analysing all Optus national network sites across all states and territories across Australia. The data includes information on the local topography, the amount of combustible vegetation (known as fuel load), vegetation type and local bushfire weather severity.

We use this information to study the potential impacts of embers, fire radiation and flame on and around telecommunications equipment. Then, we map sites most at risk and prioritise site improvements.

Optus has now implemented the recommended mitigations at two of its sites in Victoria: Seville East and Dixons Creek, to act as examples to showcase that a larger longer-term resiliency program is able to reference.

This project determined the best value return to reduce a site’s bushfire loss potential and underpinned in-house training to improve employees’ awareness of threats and preparedness to reduce them. Optus has also used these findings to identify and invest in the most impactful upgrades.

Targeting investment

They also provide examples for other infrastructure companies to learn how best to protect their most vulnerable infrastructure. The research can inform resiliency decisions across a number of industries, not only telecommunications, but also energy and emergency services.

For example, improving power infrastructure can help decrease outages in bushfires. As a result, it improves the resilience of telecommunications services as these networks rely on power.

The project is an early indicator of the relevance of the work scientists will do through National Bushfire Intelligence Capabilities (NBIC). The NBIC was developed with Emergency Management Australia in response to the devastating 2019-20 bushfires.

It will be delivered with the National Recovery and Resilience Agency, as part of the Australian Climate Service. The ACS is providing climate and natural hazard information and insights to support our national emergency management and climate resilience efforts.

CSIRO is a key partner in the ACS, along with the Bureau of Meteorology, Australian Bureau of Statistics and Geoscience Australia.

Evidence-based approaches

CSIRO has a significant role to play in providing reliable, actionable research and developing the best practice methods and techniques that will help build infrastructure resilience.

Our focus is on Australia-specific solutions that take into account our unique geography, climate, cultural heritage and environment.

But by adopting an evidence-based, multidisciplinary approach, there is also a clear opportunity for Australia to become a global leader in climate and disaster resilience.

To find out more about CSIRO’s resilience-building research, head to www.csiro.au/en/research/environmental-impacts/Disaster-Resilience.

Justin Leonard has dedicated the last 22 of his 26-year research career to understanding how bushfire risk to life and infrastructure can be managed. His work has built on the learning of an already established research area within CSIRO in which he was initially mentored and then inherited. The research area combines learnings from bushfire exposure experiments with post bushfire survey investigations and computer modelling of bushfire interactions with buildings.

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