Friendships Forged in Fire

Dr Sam Hillman, 2022 Fulbright Future Scholar, Funded by The Kinghorn Foundation

As I stood on the forested slopes of in Missoula, Montana discussing the challenges of conducting prescribed burns with five Americans, I was reminded of how universal the challenges of forest and fire management are across the world.

Despite differences in how we describe the physical environment – a “gully” or a “draw”, a “snag” or a “stag” and a “crik” or a “creek” – fire managers the world over are experiencing similar difficulties in managing fire in dynamically changing environments. The aim of my Fulbright program was to begin to address this challenge by developing an international framework to assess vegetation in the context of wildfire.

Professionally, the Fulbright experience has enhanced my technical understanding of fire behaviour models and vegetation assessment techniques which are utilised globally. My Fulbright research has also facilitated positive outcomes to be realised in a number of key areas. Firstly, a universal fuels framework has been successfully developed. Researchers and land managers in all countries are now able to understand the similarities and differences between fuel inputs used in the different fire behaviour models that have been developed across the world. This framework is relevant not only in fire prone countries, but also in countries that have recently been impacted by wildfires. It also serves as the basis for countries to share fuel information into the future.

A second positive outcome of my Fulbright research has been in the application of 3D remote sensing in the assessment of fuels. In the first instance I applied novel algorithms for the segmentation of 3D point clouds to provide a more precise description of fuel. This work will enable land managers to better understand the effects of prescribed burning and the associated impact on reducing fuel connectivity, both of which are vital to understanding the different risk exposures from burning.

Ultimately, this work has the potential outcome in enabling a paradigm shift in the way vegetation is measured from the perspective of fire and I am indebted to the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory, my host institution, for their generosity in knowledge sharing. It is my intention to continue this research into the future, with US and Australian researchers working in collaboration.

Being involved in the Fulbright program has had a profound impact not only professionally but also personally. The last ten months have provided a unique opportunity to work where research and operations intersect in a global environment. The ability to delve deeper and think widely about solutions to global problems is one that I have relished.

It is indeed a rare occurrence when we live in a world in which funding in both academia and government organisations is so tightly constrained. This free-thinking has also enabled me to expand my thinking on what the future may hold.Personally, in a broad context, the Fulbright experience has given me a much greater insight and understanding of the social, environmental and political elements of the United States.

I have thoroughly enjoyed living in Missoula, Montana and I have greatly appreciated the friendliness and community-minded nature of the people who have welcomed us into their home. Lasting friendships have been made, with not only those I work with, but also friends whom I have met through sporting and social events. I look forward to maintaining these friendships.

Living in close proximity to the Rocky Mountains, has also provided endless opportunities to explore the natural environment via foot, bike or packraft. Whether it is on the side of a hill in Montana or the Otways in Victoria, Australia I have a passion for implementing innovative science that meets the needs people working on the ground.

The United States and Australia are highly fire-prone landscapes. As each country grapples with what this changing environment looks like, fire researchers from both countries should be encouraged to collaborate to achieve the best possible outcomes. The Fulbright program provided a unique opportunity to collaborate with a variety of highly skilled and talented professionals and ultimately make a meaningful contribution to our understanding of fuel and fire in the global landscape.

The Fulbright program is an exemplar of what can be achieved when countries come together to share knowledge and it has been a truly wonderful experience to be a participant.