CFA researcher Rachel Bessell crunches numbers to predict where and when bushfires will impact.
Three months without rain. Forty degrees Celsius. Sixty-five kilometre per hour winds. You don’t need to be a scientist or a mathematician to know what those numbers might mean – just an Australian who lived through the summer of 2019-20, where devastating bushfires took 33 lives, destroyed thousands of buildings and burned more than 500,000 ha of bushland.
Yep, numbers like those can mean extreme fire conditions – and while they affect all of us, they’re numbers that scientists like Rachel Bessell are particularly interested in.
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Burning for information
Rachel says she always loved maths and science at school, so she signed up for a Bachelor of Science with Honours at the Australian National University in Canberra. She was at uni in 2003 when bushfires tore through Canberra and caused the city’s worst natural disaster in history. It was this experience, she says, that inspired her to focus her Honours research on bushfire weather, which led to a career in bushfire research and disaster management.
In her current role as a senior researcher at the Country Fire Authority (CFA) in Victoria, it’s Rachel’s job to improve our understanding of how bushfires behave. On extreme weather days, if there are active fires burning, Rachel might be working in the State Control Centre as a fire behaviour analyst, helping emergency services predict the spread of fires in real-time.
Rachel is able to make these predictions by not only drawing on real-time weather and climate data, but also on data and findings generated from her research, which she conducts between emergencies.
This research can involve lighting fires under extreme conditions – and in an extremely controlled environment – to collect data and use it to better inform our understanding
of fires and our ability to predict their behaviour.
For example, a recent study Rachel was involved in was looking at crop fires. Working closely with the CSIRO – and with firefighters at the ready – Rachel would go into paddocks in central western Victoria and replicate real-life fires on small plots. Data is collected from weather stations located on-site as well as thermal loggers in the ground to measure variables associated with the spread of the fires across the grass. Her research has resulted in a change to fire danger ratings, after she found current models had been underestimating the rate of fire spread in partially dry grasslands.
Aside from helping save lives and property, Rachel says one of the best things about her job is the diversity – a typical day at work could mean being called on to make predictions during emergencies, spending 12-hour days conducting experimental burns and collecting data in the field, or working in an office reviewing, planning or meeting with stakeholders.
Rachel says she remembers studying maths at high school and wondering what it might all be useful for – but now she understands that maths underpins a lot of physical science research like hers.
“Maths has real-world applications and even though I didn’t do maths at university, it’s still a big part of physical sciences. The way weather patterns work, fire behaviour – it’s all dependent on numbers,” she says.
This article originally appears in Careers with STEM: Maths & Data 2020.
Author: Gemma Chilton
Gemma has a degree in journalism from the University of Technology, Sydney and spent a semester studying environmental journalism in Denmark. She has been writing about science and engineering for over a decade.