Fighting Fire with Maths

At the start of 2020, the world watched in horror as Australian bushfires burned an area the size of Germany and the UK combined.  

The 2019–2020 Australian bushfire season has been the worst on record. Communities are reeling from the devastating impact of these fires, hundreds of millions of animals have been killed, and ecosystems badly damaged. Globally, areas including California and Brazil have also been ravaged by the deadliest and most destructive fires on record, while in Portugal, Bolivia and Chile, firestorms have threatened communities for the first time in recorded history. 

There is an urgent need for applied research into how extreme fires behave and how we manage them to ensure we better prepare for and tackle disasters of this magnitude—or even prevent them outright.  


We must act now to develop sophisticated predictive tools for fire agencies and communities so that we can better forecast, map and model fire spread. We will work to improve the knowledge and capability of emergency services to better fight fires and build resilient communities, saving lives, livelihoods and critical ecosystems in the process. 

Building on UNSW’s strength in science and climate change research, UNSW Canberra will establish a world-leading research hub known as the Centre for Bushfire Dynamics, Simulation and Modelling. With your support, UNSW researchers will build upon existing research to generate vital new knowledge and innovations in policy and practice that will mitigate the increasing threat of extreme fire behaviour in Australia and around the world. 

New Knowledge for New Solutions

The UNSW Centre for Bushfire Dynamics, Simulation and Modelling will be a global home for cutting-edge bushfire research and game-changing advances in emergency service operations, urban design, planning codes and building standards. 

UNSW Canberra's Professor Jason Sharples, a pioneer in maths-driven research into extreme and unusual fire activity, will lead the Centre. Powered by his teams’ expertise and with Professor Sharples’ decade of experience as a volunteer firefighter, the Centre will create a direct pathway between research and implementation, providing solutions to help confront the rapidly escalating global fire threat. 

The Centre will operate in four key research areas to help develop predictive tools for fire agencies. Fire analysts will be able to model fire spread and more accurately predict which fires will develop into firestorms. Emergency services will be able to evacuate areas earlier, ensuring the safety of our communities and firefighters. 

Dynamic fire propagation and extreme bushfire development 

All fires start small. Some are contained easily, while others will develop into larger, more destructive events. Among these are fires that explode into extreme firestorms, transitioning rapidly and unpredictably. The fundamental work of the Centre will lead to a framework to effectively model fire spread and more accurately predict which fires will develop into firestorms.  

UNSW expertise was an essential component of the Coronial Inquiry into the 2013 Coonabarabran Firestorm. The recommendations included the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) and National Parks and Wildlife Service introduce professional development programs to educate their workers on the role that atmospheric instability has on extreme fire behaviour. Professor Sharples is a global expert in extreme fire behaviour—his analysis of the first recorded fire tornado during the 2003 Canberra fires altered the world’s understanding of dynamic fire behaviour. Emergency services, including the NSW and ACT RFS, call on him for expert advice.    

Incorporating environmental uncertainty in bushfire models 

Firestorms are inherently random. For decades, emergency services have been able to anticipate the movements of bushfires with some degree of accuracy, but that knowledge has proven fallible in a new era of catastrophic fire conditions.

The Centre will work with advanced stochastic-statistical methods to embed the uncertainty of fire behaviour into new, more accurate fire models. With this knowledge we will establish a new approach to bushfire modelling, incorporating techniques that acknowledge and address the intrinsic variability of catastrophic fire events. 

This research will enable emergency services to make better-informed decisions about how to manage fires and firestorms. We will also work closely with the UNSW Climate Change Research Centre to investigate the relationship between climate change and catastrophic bushfire occurrence. The NSW RFS and the ACT Emergency Services Agency have already incorporated key findings of UNSW research into their standard operating procedures for Fire Behaviour Analysts. 

Utilisation, training and education development  

The Centre will develop and implement training opportunities to upskill and equip emergency services with new tools and knowledge, so they can respond to bushfires more effectively. We will ensure that all frontline responders have an awareness of dynamic fire behaviour so they know what to expect in catastrophic fire conditions, and how to manage these events effectively and safely.

Already, modelling frameworks developed at UNSW Canberra have been adapted into accessible and workable tools for emergency services. UNSW researchers were commissioned by the Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council (AFAC) to write substantial sections of the new training modules, including content relating to fire weather training. UNSW bushfire research has also influenced the revision of national competencies for firefighters in Australia and New Zealand. 

Extreme bushfire at the wildland-urban interface 

As populations expand, our cities and towns continue to encroach on wilderness areas. Design principles and development codes for the wildland-urban interface typically incorporate some degree of bushfire awareness; however industry knowledge is outdated, leaving communities exposed to the destructive forces of extreme fires. In collaboration with UNSW Built Environment, the Centre will explore how to better manage ongoing urban expansion into wilderness areas.

Help protect vulnerable communities and ecosystems, and save countless lives 

Professor Sharples is also collaborating with international organisations and universities, including the Centre for the Study of Forest Fires at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. The multi-disciplinary Centre will allow UNSW to provide an updated, integrated and robust understanding of dynamic and extreme fire conditions. It will drive the implementation of policies and practices that mitigate risks, minimise damage and keep vulnerable communities safe from harm. 

The chaotic nature, sheer ferocity and devastating legacy of catastrophic fires have blindsided the Australian community since the turn of the century. A stoic capacity to survive fire, flood and drought has been integral to the Australian cultural identity for generations, but this has been fundamentally tested by the fires that have ravaged our country in the 2019–2020 bushfire season.  

We need new knowledge to ensure we can safeguard our communities into the future, but bushfire research is underfunded. Without investment, Australia will continue to be at the mercy of these destructive bushfires.   

Philanthropic support will enable UNSW to expand its capabilities in bushfire modelling to produce research of national and international significance. Your investment will ensure the Centre is structured and staffed to drive progress in four inter-related streams, simultaneously pushing forward in-depth research into dynamic fire behaviour. 

We will spearhead related advances in risk management, built environment and emergency services operations, ensuring new knowledge is quickly and effectively translated into policy and practice using our existing relationships with state, federal and international emergency services and bodies. The Centre will provide governments and emergency services with the frameworks and tools to build essential new competencies and operational capabilities and develop new fire-management strategies to protect our vulnerable communities in Australia and around the world.