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Bushfires: What it Takes to be a Fire Behaviour Expert with the Rural Fire Service

Simon Heemstra has always had a fascination with fire.

But that interest turned into a career when he first witnessed a rural community in New South Wales being devastated by a bushfire in 1994.

“We had quite a lot of homes and properties that were lost in the Jannali and Como area, and I realised what a fantastic service the Rural Fire Service provides,” Dr Heemstra said.

At the time he was studying a science honours degree in vegetation mapping, and a whole area he had been monitoring was burnt.

Bushfires: What it Takes to be a Fire Behaviour Expert with the Rural Fire Service

Photo: article supplied

The event motivated him to join his local volunteer brigade and pursue a doctorate in fire mapping.

“I decided fire was a pretty interesting thing, in particular fire ecology,” Dr Heemstra said.

After 10 years as volunteer, Dr Heemstra moved behind the scenes and is currently the manager for community planning at the state headquarters of the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS), based in Lidcombe.

When bushlands flare up across the state, his job as a fire behaviour analyst is to predict how far the fire might spread or where embers might land, using mathematical modelling.

He collaborates with a large team — 10 on-site personnel and a further 80 statewide — as well as the multiple emergency agencies and representatives who work out of the RFS control centre.

Working together in a high-stress environment

The RFS state operations centre is a collaborative hub where fire and emergency agencies join together to look after all corners of NSW during bushfire and other disaster events.

During peak bushfire season there are hundreds of people packed into the circular room, their eyes continuously flicking between computer screens and the massive digital display board that looms above.

The display, made up of 100 screens, shows everything from maps, social media feeds, fire updates and weather charts, to live footage from crews battling fires across the state.

Key decisions about crew deployment, warning alerts and updates are made by the people in the room.

These include logistical teams that coordinate aviation units, the Bureau of Meteorology, ambulance, National Parks and Wildlife, the NSW Police Force and other emergency response experts.

This was originally published by ABC.net.au.

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