The science of fire management – a CFA National Science Week profile

Did you know CFA employs scientists and technical experts to help us better understand bushfires? During National Science Week we’re celebrating some of the inspiring scientists we work with to make a very real difference to Victorian communities.


CFA Senior Research Scientist Thomas Duff. Photo was taken prior to COVID-19.

CFA Senior Research Scientist Thomas Duff is helping CFA to better predict what will happen during a bushfire.

We asked Thomas to describe his role to inspire the younger members of our community to get involved in science.

What is a senior research scientist and what do you do in this role?

A senior research scientist’s job is to make sure that CFA is doing things in the best way possible.  People all over the world are constantly learning new things about fires - my job is to go through this information and figure out what we can use to make fire management safer and more effective.  I also conduct some of my own research, where I look at data, take measurements in the field or do experiments to better understand things that are important in our local area.

What drew you to this field?

I always enjoyed science but wanted a job where I also get to be practical.  This drew me to forest science - it’s an area of work where you have lots of real-world problems to work on.  For example, working on bushfires - it is a complex challenge to figure out what a fire is doing and where it will be in a few hours.  At the same time, you need to figure out what firefighting resources you have (trucks and bulldozers etc), and how you can use those to safely stop the fire spreading.

What qualifications do you need to be a senior research scientist?

To become a research scientist, most people will need to study a science degree at University with a research speciality (an honours or masters).  Following that, you would need to then do a PhD - a major research project that takes around four years to complete.  For me, I worked in forest management before doing my PhD - I have found that this gave me a good perspective on how to make my research useful.

What’s some of the most interesting work you’ve done so far?

One area of focus of my research has been investigating the process that makes a forest change from being wet one month to being able to have a bushfire the next.  As part of this, we worked with people doing hazard reduction burns and took measurements of fire behaviour (how intense the fire is, how quickly it moves etc).  It is fascinating to see complexity of forest fires as they burn, and it is a challenge to understand why and how things can change so quickly.

What drew you to CFA as an organisation?

I really enjoy doing research where my work can be used help others.  Working at CFA allows me to work on topics that are relevant and important to protecting firefighters and community safety.

I’m looking forward to doing some research on forest flammability - I want to help CFA to be better able to predict where and when we’re likely to get bushfires. 

What role does a senior research scientist play in organisations like CFA?

A research scientist helps CFA meet ‘best practice’ in its activities.  By providing information and advice, a scientist can influence the way things are done so CFA can be effective and provide greater safety to firefighters and the community.

How do you see your work helping CFA keep Victorians fire-safe?

My work will help with CFA in predicting what will happen in fires.  This will help with preparing for fire seasons, providing advice to the community and responding to fires when they happen.

I’ve had a long connection with CFA, I first joined as a junior volunteer as a teenager.  In recent years, much of my work has been on better predicting forest fires, so I have had a lot of connection with Fire Behaviour Analysts in CFA.  Their role is to predict the progression of fires as they happen and provide advice on what strategies are best for reducing fire impacts.

Author: Miranda Schooneveldt