The value of a UWA degree

  1. UWA Home
  2. UWA Alumni
  3. Perspectives

“Not all fire is the same. Not all fires are equal. Some fires burn really hot, some fires burn really cool. Some fires burn over landscapes on huge scales and some are patchy mosaics,” explains Hannah Etchells BSc '16, BSc(Hons) '17, a UWA PhD candidate whose research is looking into ecological responses to catastrophic bushfire across fire-prone ecosystems in Southwest Australia.

We have to be really nuanced with the way we understand what’s going on. Simply saying ‘fire is good’ or ‘fire is bad’ for an ecosystem is painting with a brush that’s much too broad.

Hannah’s research is providing in-depth understanding for the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions about the impact of severe bushfire events and the trajectories to recovery that need to be considered when planning future management and prescribed burning strategies. Burning too soon risks irreparably altering the make-up of that ecosystem, the flora and fauna it can support and how susceptible it will be to future fires.

Bushfire and natural hazard related research is taking place across all four faculties and 21 schools, as well as a number of major research centres and institutes. Over 30 UWA researchers are also involved with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (BNHCRC). This coordinated collaborative national research effort, conducted under direction from partners including government departments, emergency services, NGOs and land management agencies, is helping to inform fire-management and mitigation strategies and provide innovative tools to help our communities stay safe and better prepare for a safer future.

It’s this end-user driven approach to research that is yielding valuable and practical results in areas as disparate as environmental conservation, economic management and predictive modelling, as well as major projects like Answering the Call, a first-in-kind national survey of the mental health and wellbeing of emergency responders, and work being done on the effects of bushfire smoke on human respiratory health. All of which provide a broader understanding of the impact, both visible and hidden, of large-scale fires.

One of the big issues with recent catastrophic bushfires, and the prescribed burning undertaken to prevent these events, is the amount of smoke they send over large urban areas and the impact that has on human health.

“Bushfire smoke is bushfire smoke, whether it comes from a prescribed burn or an out-of-control fire,” explains Dr Peter Franklin BSc '92, Senior Research Fellow at The School of Population and Global Health.

Any change in particulate air pollution, no matter the baseline, is associated on a population level with increases in things like hospitalisation and ‘silent deaths’ of people with pre-existing diseases like asthma or a cardiovascular disease.

Dr Franklin’s research, undertaken in collaboration with the Department of Health’s Epidemiology Branch, is providing a better understanding that smoke from prescribed burning isn’t benign and planning and management should be conducted with the health impacts in mind. One way this research will be applied is the creation of a sophisticated early warning system for air pollution. Primarily targeted at high-risk cohorts, this system will alert the community of upcoming burning, that smoke may drift over their area and to make sure they have their asthma or related health management plan in place.

Perhaps the highest-profile example of the work being done at UWA in this space is Professor George Milne’s Aurora bushfire modelling project. Established to develop a national bushfire prediction, detection and early warning system, Aurora simulates bushfires in real time and rapidly communicates the spread predictions in the early stages of a bushfire, when time-critical responses are required.

A key component, and major tool developed by this project, is the Australis interactive wildfire simulator. This touchscreen resource enables firefighters in the field to accurately and reliably predict bushfire behaviour, up to 24 hours into the future, and create firefighting and evacuation strategies.

Australis has also helped facilitate new research projects at UWA. It was used by Dr Veronique Florec PhD '16, Research Fellow with UWA’s Centre for Environmental Economics and Policy, for economic analysis of prescribed burning for her PhD research. Dr Florec now leads her own BNHCRC project on the economics of natural hazards, an area that is underdeveloped at a national level.

“A lot of current decision making within emergency services is ad hoc, using previous experience to inform their future management,” says Dr Florec.

We’re looking to integrate economic thinking into the mitigation of natural hazards, not by looking at events that have already happened, in the form of a cost-of-impact analysis, but looking at what can be done to mitigate future bushfires

The project requires the simulation of thousands of bushfires to see how they behave under different weather scenarios, ignition probabilities and resource capabilities for stopping the fires. The project has also developed tools to assign dollar values to intangible things like mental health, amenities, cultural heritage, animal welfare and biodiversity for inclusion in economic analyses of natural hazard mitigation. Assigning dollar values to things that don’t have traditional market value ensures they are included in economic analysis and helps improve strategic decision making for government agencies and the emergency management sector.

By taking this considered end-user-first approach, bushfire research at UWA reflects the power of government agencies and academia working together and will facilitate tangible, translatable and practical benefits for our communities.

For more information on any of these projects, to offer feedback, provide support or share your own experience, please contact

Bushfire and natural hazard research at UWA

Author: Jayden Worts  |  Cover photograph: Jen Middleton