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Recovering after bushfire: how technology can help revive catchments and vegetation

The 2019-20 bushfire season left swathes of land across the east coast of Australia with catastrophic damage and, as most water professionals know, posed huge challenges for catchment management and rehabilitation efforts.

The AWA Victoria Bushfire Recovery Hackathon tasked two teams with identifying practical approaches to fast-track revegetation and rehabilitation of catchments to promote biodiversity, reduce water quality impacts and build resilience for the future.

While the teams — Shovel Ready and Rehab Rebels — worked separately on solutions, both teams deciphered similar targets, including fast-tracking rehabilitation efforts by creating portals that helped stakeholders prioritise risks and respond with efficiency.

Shovel Ready team leader Petter Nyman said one of his team’s main focuses was to create a process that helped stakeholders manage competing priorities following devastating bushfire events.

“At the outset of the Hackathon, the issues defined became broader than the original question. Our focus became about how we can how effectively identify and communicate risk-based and practical solutions, using latest knowledge and guidelines. But it is difficult to know where to start,” he said.

“We have these huge burnt areas, and it’s impossible to direct initial response everywhere. We had to find a way to focus our efforts. One of the key questions that came through that ideation process was: how should we prioritise across such large areas of burnt land?

“The key to effective prioritisation is robust risk framework that used the best available science and considers values, threats, vulnerabilities and recovery objectives.”

Prioritising resources

Nyman said the weighting given to different values and tour definition of recovery objectives depended on the particular catchment that was being considered in recovery planning

“You might be in a remote forest, with few values at risk and where there is little to gain from intervention in which case you might just want to let nature take its course. Whereas, if you have a severely impacted catchment with communities reliant on water supplies from that catchment, or a catchment with some form of threatened species, then that's where we’d want to prioritise our efforts,” he said.

“We found that the important first step is to understand where to prioritise resources in order to make as much of a difference to rehabilitation as possible. Response time is also an important element. Following a bushfire incident, there's a lot of stuff going on, lots of communities heavily affected and people are under a great deal of stress. 

“In this setting we need a well-defined process for developing a plan for catchment recovery. Our solution is a tool to guide this process.

“With this tool we also address the critical issue of response time. Response time is an issue, because, in some cases, action following huge bushfire events can get stalled, or held up, by capacity or lack of clarity around objectives and responsibilities.”

Nyman said it was also important for recovery efforts to be realistic in terms of managing costs, particularly in instances like the 2019-20 bushfires, which affected unprecedented amounts of land.

“The third issue we sought to address is cost effectiveness. How do we ensure that the efforts are directed in a way that makes the most of the funding available?” he said.

“You really need bespoke solutions that are tailored to the post-fire environment, and being able to identify what those are and align them with the recovery objectives for a particular catchment.

“It’s really important that any response effort is tailored to the landscape. The fires from 2019-20 reached from South East Queensland right down through to Victoria. Solutions that might work in a catchment up in northern New South Wales might not be the right solution for a catchment in East Gippsland.”

Recovery and risk-assessment

Shovel Ready’s recovery roadmap tool aims to provide a primary source of information for all stakeholders, enabling bespoke recovery planning while also allowing for broader cooperation. 

“Our idea was to create a one-stop shop in the form of a website website, which guides people through the process of developing a targeted and effective recovery plan,” Nyman said.

“Each process requires multiple things: understanding the science, understanding the decision-making context for land tenure, the values that need to be managed appropriately, as well as the stakeholders that need to be engaged with.

“The plan is for the website to guide people through all those elements to help them create a catchment-specific rehabilitation plan. At this stage, our solution is not a detailed recovery map, but it's a clear set of steps to implement in order to arrive at a cost effective plan that's tailored to your geographic location.”

Furthermore, Nyman said, his team recognised the important need for risk assessment to be incorporated into the recovery tool, with catchment information, as well as specific bushfire information, linking up with mapping out the values being managed.

“There is definitely a demand for a more systematic way to approach risk and develop management solutions that are going to be effective,” he said. 

“Furthermore, creating a clear recovery roadmap portal would have the added benefit of acting as an important communication tool, one which links up recovery efforts to ensure they are as effective as possible.”

Rehab Rebels

Rehab Rebels team member Sally Williamson said that, while her team took a similar path in addressing the Hackathon challenge, they came up with some different points of interest, including pre-event, and during-event, risk-management goals.

“Our initial focus was to work out what currently exists. We researched guidelines and best-practise manuals and policies. We consulted with mentors to decipher how the water industry currently responds, in terms of what tools and technologies are available and in use,” she said.

“We took a good look at how Melbourne Water plans for bushfires, what they do during the event, as well as after a bushfire, to mitigate risks and to speed up revegetation in bushfire affected areas.”

Following the research process, Rehab Rebels realised that while there was a lot of information available to bolster rehabilitation efforts, the real challenge involved ensuring the right information was available more readily for utilities, councils and communities in need.

“Our team’s thinking led us along the lines of developing a portal that's tangible, a tool that could be used by any utility, or council, or anyone needing to undertake the task of managing a rehabilitation effort,” Williamson said.

“There's lots of information out there. Our aim was to help focus in on what was needed, when and where.”

“The portal blueprint we developed is designed to be a hub for information, for education, as well as for communication between parties that are affected. Our aim was to make sure everyone is on the same page in terms of what is required before, during and after an event.”

Williamson said a key focus of her team was to ensure that the varying levels of resources available to different stakeholders was also taken into account.

“It’s not just utilities that need this kind of information, it’s also regulatory bodies and landowners, all with different perspectives and different levels of resources to be applied,” she said.

“Large utilities can get to work employing different organisations to research impacts, but not all parties affected by large bushfire events have that kind of money. However, it‘s still useful if they have access to the thinking behind it, at least, so they can go about developing a rehabilitation plan that works within their limits.”

Real-time response

Rehab Rebels also focused on building real-time functionality into their portal blueprint, with the aim of ensuring stakeholders have more transparency around risks during bushfire events.

“We also had the idea to include functionality around real-time communication using GPS. This would help users during events, but also help guide outside parties who might need information in real-time,” Williamson said.

“If there is a bushfire event, people and organisations need to have access to real-time mapping of where it's at, where personnel are, in-built survival grades and information about nearby services. The aim is to keep track of people, keep track of intensity, mapping where the fire is burning and where it has already burned, in order to assist with early-stage risk assessments.

“Furthermore, following a bushfire event, there’s a strong need to be able to look back and track what has happened and where. It depends on the location, but response teams need to be able to create a risk assessment of what's been burned, where the risk stands, and what is required of person power to speed up rehabilitation.”

And while rehabilitation of catchments is certainly a key priority following bushfire events, Williamson said there is still always a limit to what can be done in terms of speeding up recovery.

“One of the key learnings we gleaned from Melbourne Water was that there really is limited things you can do to speed up nature,” she said.

“Mostly, it's going to do it on its own. Our job was to help create a tool that would help people manage their end of the process as quickly and efficiently as possible.