Investing in early fire detection could save $8billion, ANU study shows

Yankees Gap fire, September 2019. Picture: Rachel Helmreich
Yankees Gap fire, September 2019. Picture: Rachel Helmreich

Early bushfire detection could save the Australian economy $8.2billion over the next 30 years, according to modelling in a study undertaken by The Australian National University (ANU).

Survey data revealed "the vast majority of Australians, 78.6 per cent, were impacted either directly, through their family/friends, or through the physical effects of smoke" and that "around 2.9million adult Australians had their property damaged, their property threatened, or had to be evacuated".

The research, led by the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods, examined how much money would be saved between 2020 and 2049 under three fire detection scenarios - a 30-minute reduction in detection time for large fires; a 60-minute reduction in detection time for large fires; and all fires, large and small, responded to within 30 minutes.

The modelling accounted for a potential increase in bushfires due to climate change - with no growth in fires, a 15 per cent increase in fires due to climate change, and a 30 per cent increase in fires due to climate change.

The researchers found that under a high climate change scenario and if all fires were responded to within 30 minutes the economy would save $8.2billion in 2019 terms.

Study co-author Professor Matthew Gray said between 2020 and 2049 bushfires were likely to cost the Australian economy up to $1.1billion per year.

"And that's if we don't factor in a potential increase in fires due to climate change," he said.

"But, our modelling shows that if we invest in the ability to detect large fires earlier, there are significant economic savings. For example, the cost of bushfires under a high climate change scenario and no change in fire detection times could rise as high as $2.4billion per year by 2049," Mr Gray said.

With early detection this figure decreases to around $1.9billion per year.

"Bushfires don't just have a terrible economic cost - they destroy habitats and homes, kill wildlife and people and leave our landscape struggling to recover for years to come," Mr Gray said.

"So investing in early detection won't just lead to economic benefits; it will lead to a range of extremely important non-economic returns."

Study co-author Professor Nicholas Biddle said investing in early fire detection had the potential to offer a powerful practical tool to reduce bushfire risk, particularly in the context of climate change.

"Despite the importance of climate change to the current and future distribution of fires in Australia, Australia can only make a small contribution alone, and policy returns are likely to be far into the future. Other strategies are also needed," Mr Biddle said.

"Research shows one of the key predictors of whether a fire turns into a large and costly fire is the time between ignition and first attack response.

"The sparse geographic distribution of populations in Australia also mean that fires may not be detected in a sufficient time to deploy resources before they reach a size that makes them uncontrollable, particularly without significant investment in remote detection resources," Mr Biddle said.

The research is published by the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods and is supported by Fireball International.

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