Why and how do we use map data in bushfire management?

Map data is useful through the fire year, providing information about

  • where fires are burning,
  • what has already burnt, and
  • what burnt last year.

Below is a diagram outlining the fire year and the fire management stages that occur during the year. During each of these activities there are specific map information tools that are critical for informing your work.


At the beginning of each year it is useful to develop a fire management plan, firstly identifying important areas in need of protection from fire; for example, key infrastructure, sacred sites or environmentally sensitive areas. This information may be stored on a computer in a Geographic Information System (GIS) and/or printed in a hard copy map form.

It is then useful to look at the landscape to understand where fires might come from and landscape features that might stop fires, for example big rivers or roads. This information may also be on a map or viewed on an air-photo or satellite image. Google Earth, for example, can help to identify both valuable areas and natural fire barriers in the landscape. You should also look at where fires occurred in recent years, as this will help you understand where there might be more or less fuel lying about. The North Australia and Rangelands Fire Information website (NAFI) can provide you with information about this.

This information combined with local knowledge makes it possible to map out where country is vulnerable and where it needs to be protected, and to develop a strategic burning plan identifying where fire breaks will be located on the ground. These breaks are then put in place in the next stage of the activities, using either aerial incendiary drops from a helicopter, or burning from a car or even walking into country for fine scale strategic burning. In order to share your burning plans with others, it is possible to draw your planned breaks onto a hard-copy map or in GIS.


The ’mitigation phase’ is the stage where you put in the fire breaks planned during the planning phase. These breaks are put in place using either aerial incendiary drops from a helicopter, burning from a car or walking into country for fine scale strategic burning.

When in the field implementing your planned breaks, it is important that the planning you conducted on hard copy map or computer is uploaded to a GPS device to direct your operations. You can also use computers, tablets (I-Pads) or smart phones to view maps of your planned burn lines and where you are travelling in the field.

Whilst in the field it can be useful to record the locations of these breaks, (which can differ to the planned breaks due to conditions on the ground), to assess how successful your burning operations have been. If you are using an aerial incendiary device such as a RainDance™ or RedDragon machines, these can be set up to automatically collect a GPS location point every time an incendiary is dropped. Other software such as Avenza Maps and CyberTracker are also useful for recording ignition points and tracks in the field.


Throughout the dry season you will need to monitor the outcomes from your burning program to make sure you are getting the results you require. There are a number of ways to understand what you have burnt and where. The most common tool used in Northern Australia Is the NAFI website, which has regularly updated maps of active fires and burnt areas.

Active fires are shown via hotspots (points on the webpage) which are updated every few hours and displayed. Burnt area maps show you what area has already burnt. The burnt area mapping is updated every week or so throughout the entire year. These data are produced via a number of satellites that pass over Northern Australia multiple times every day.

An example of hotspots and burnt area mapping provided on the NAFI website. Hotspots are displayed in 5 different time series (00-06 hours (pink stars), 03-12 hours (red stars), 12-24 hours (red squares), 24-48 hours (blue triangles), and 2-7 days (blue spots). Burnt area can be displayed by the month or year – the standard NAFI web-map is displayed by the month.

Some fire managers also use other satellite data to produce clearer pictures of where and when burning has occurred. Satellites commonly used are Landsat and Sentinel.

A difference image using high-resolution Sentinel 2 imagery Mid-infrared Burn Index (MIRBI) image map which highlights areas recently burnt.


Later in the year when you are more likely to get dangerous, hot wildfires it is important to assess what if any intervention response is possible. To do this it is important to be monitoring active fires via hotspots provided by web-based fire mapping services like NAFI to determine if and where dangerous fires might be occurring.

You then need to view these fires with reference to all of your base information developed during your initial planning stage around vulnerable areas, previous burning, natural breaks and points of access. It can be very helpful at this stage to bring the mapping provided through Web services onto your own computer and/or hard copy map to assist with this process.


At the end of a fire year it is important to assess the outcomes in terms of management successes and evaluate the environmental or economic benefits and impacts. This is particularly critical if, for example, you are running a carbon farming project, as you will need to be able to show the burning you have conducted and calculate the carbon benefits before you can get paid.

Key to these assessments are burnt area maps showing when and where fires occurred. Data showing where strategic fire management was conducted can also be useful in determining how successful the management burning strategies have been. An online dashboard SMERF (the Savanna Monitoring and Evaluation Reporting Framework) fuelled by NAFI data is a useful tool for this. Satellite derived mapping or hotspots can also be used to follow the spread of particular fires over time, which can be useful for understanding ignition and outcomes. This data can be downloaded from the NAFI website.