Australians deploy social media in battle against bush fires


As dozens of unpredictable bush fires break out due to the extreme heat affecting many parts of Australia, military-style operations are in full swing at a “nerve center” that harnesses state-of-the-art technology allied to the power of social media.

Already equipped with the world’s largest firefighting service, with more than 70,000 unpaid volunteers at its disposal, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS) deploys information as a key resource in battling the elements.

At the state operations room at the western Sydney headquarters of the RFS, fire officials sit alongside representatives from the police, the Department of Defense, utilities and state bodies to coordinate the fire response.

Before them is a giant digital video wall, the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, displaying information about all fires burning in the state, including maps, number of firefighters at the front and weather forecasts.

“This is the nerve center for all the fires that are going on in New South Wales at the moment,” media spokeswoman Brydie O’Connor said.

All information — including fire behavior analysis, air resources, number of firetrucks available, streets and homes that might come under threat — is plugged into an online system and is immediately available to all who need it.

The center itself is disaster-proofed, with custom designs ensuring “if there is a major power outage or some sort of catastrophic event in NSW that electricity would still run in this building,” O’Connor said.

Combined with the expert analysis and information to track fires, the RFS uses social media to engage with those who need it most: people in the path of danger.

Using its website, a new smartphone app and social media sites, the RFS works on multiple fronts to get the message out, alerting citizens to the nearest blazes and providing timely updates.

“Social media is proving a really effective way to get the message out to the community,” explained O’Connor.

“On Tuesday (when temperatures in Sydney hit 42 degrees and the fire rating in the state was catastrophic) we saw more than 80,000 people using our Fires Near Me iPhone app per hour. That is a huge number.

“And with our New South Wales Rural Fire Service website where we publish our major fire updates . . . we saw a million people on that website on Tuesday and given the population of New South Wales (7.3 million) it’s a staggering number.”

The Fires Near Me app is designed to alert people to bush fire activity in real time, informing them of any bush fire within a 50-km radius of their phone’s GPS location and providing data on its size and severity.

At RFS headquarters, where the operations room runs around the clock while bush fires are burning, a team constantly updates the service’s Facebook page, Twitter feeds and website.

At the same time, they are taking information from the public.

O’Connor said as the state sweltered under a summer scorcher last week, with more than 150 fires burning, one person was able to use Facebook to check whether his property had been affected.

The man, who was away from home, had heard there was a bush fire near his house and posted a message on Facebook to ask about it. A neighbor assured him the house was still standing.

Observatory damaged


Australia’s top research observatory, which houses telescopes used by scientists from around the world, was damaged by a large wildfire Sunday as hot weather and storms stoked dozens of new blazes.

The Rural Fire Service (RFS) of New South Wales state issued an emergency warning for an out-of-control fire that scorched the Siding Spring Observatory, a remote global research facility.

“This is a large and dangerous bush fire. It is burning in the area around Timor Road near Siding Spring Observatory,” the RFS said.

It said two properties in Timor Road had been destroyed and part of the observatory was damaged by fire. The extent of the damage was unclear.

All observatory staff were evacuated before the fire.

Siding Spring, a mountaintop site in the Warrumbungle Ranges about 500 km north-west of Sydney, houses 10 operating telescopes run by Australian, Polish, British, South Korean and American researchers.

Administered by the Australian National University’s research school of astronomy and astrophysics, Siding Spring is the nation’s major optical and infrared observatory and one of the top facilities of its kind in the world.

A university spokeswoman said all observatory personnel had been confirmed as “safely evacuated and accounted for.”

Fire crews battled difficult conditions, with temperatures in the area above 40 degrees Celsius and hot northwesterly gusts of about 60 kph.

The fire was burning across a 4-km front, with a strong southerly pushing the flames to the north and northeast as night fell.

A partner observatory at Canberra’s Mount Stromlo was destroyed by wildfires in January 2003 that killed four people and razed more than 500 homes.

Five telescopes, residences and more than a dozen buildings were ruined in the Mount Stromlo inferno, forcing the termination of a number of major projects including a digital survey of the Southern Hemisphere’s skies.

In the northern state of Queensland trains were halted Sunday due to fears that tracks would buckle under scorching heat that has seen bitumen road surfaces melt in some towns.

The RFS said lightning storms started about 40 new fires overnight in northern New South Wales. They were fanned by strong winds but most were in remote areas and not a threat to properties.

By Sunday evening there were 134 fires burning across NSW of which 43 were out of control, according to the RFS.