Research Letter #14


No, this has nothing to do with the Olympic Games or even a Bush Fire Service Field Day! It could be, though, because in any competition no one knows that a record has been achieved, let alone broken, unless there has been a record of all, or some, past events. We wouldn't know that Taylor equalled Bradman's highest score in cricket unless the previous achievements of first class cricketers had been noted. You would have no idea that you had exceeded your personal best time in swimming 50 metres unless you knew what your previous best time was. You only know the record if you have kept a record!

The Guiness Book of Records shows to what lengths people will go to establish a record. They create events; they spend time and money on exceeding the previous 'best'. My impression from the media is that there are records for the biggest cake, the longest line dance, longest pole sitting times ... the list seems endless. Many of us would consider some of the events to be just novelties, a way of raising money for charity or just fun. Yet someone goes to the trouble to record events all around the world.

Sometimes a record is kept not just so you can claim a superlative when an old mark has been passed but also so you know what is going on. In the bushfire area there are lots of questions being asked. How many fires are there in Australia each year? What areas do they burn? What benefits do they create? What damage do they cause? How much money, time and effort is expended in managing them? Are the numbers, areas etc. rising, falling or staying much the same? How much fuel is being burned? What contribution is being made by bushfire smoke to climate change? What are our fire regimes? These are questions that are impossible to answer without good records.

Unfortunately, good records often start with paperwork. We all groan when forced to fill in forms but if we can understand the purposes to which the data are put then the effort seems worthwhile. An invaluable record of fires comes from southwestern Australian forests where, in some blocks, they have continuous yearly maps of areas burned by unplanned and prescribed fires from 1936 to the present. With current computer technology (e.g. high accuracy scanners, Geographical Information Systems and high speed, large capacity computers) these are now being formally analysed to show changes in fire regimes over time (e.g. Lang 1997).

New technology is making the reporting and recording of fires easier. Mobile phones are the means by which the public is increasingly reporting fires in the A.C.T. In Victoria, the Country Fire Authority has built an electronic system for the real-time logging and the post-event recording of the details of each fire incident. The system includes data entry into a central register through a computer-aided despatch system, through the phone network and through personal computers (Chris. Cowley, CFA, personal communication). New technology can help with the accuracy of fire mapping too - through the use of Global Positioning Systems (GPS), and especially Differential Global Positioning Systems (DGPS). Geographical Information Systems (GIS) are a valuable, and now common, way of storing maps.

Numbers of fire occurrences and fire maps are baseline data for many applications. We need to make sure that our register of fires is accurate, complete and up-to-date. It is as well to remember that new technologies are exciting and useful aids, but old technologies are still needed where the new ones are not yet in place or limited in their capabilities.

Literature cited:
  1. Lang, S.L. (1997). Burning the Bush. A Spatio-temporal Analysis of Jarrah Forest Fire Regimes. BSc (Hons) thesis, Australian National University.

Malcolm Gill
Division of Plant Industry, CSIRO
September 1999