Emeritus Professor relishes chance to get back to the research he loves
Professor Ross Bradstock reflects on career devoted to understanding fire behaviour
It seems somewhat ironic that Emeritus Professor Ross Bradstock’s retirement coincided with the biggest bushfire season in Australia’s history.
Earlier this year, Professor Bradstock stepped down from his role as Director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires.
But for the renowned fire ecologist, it was serendipitous timing. Retirement for Professor Bradstock means the chance to spend more time in the field pursuing his passion for research.
“I still have a lot on my plate; there are many new ideas and new possibilities to explore,” he said. “For me, the emphasis is on getting back to the grassroots research. I’ve started doing a lot more fieldwork than I was doing before.”
Yesterday (Tuesday 8 December), UOW bestowed Professor Bradstock with an Emeritus Professorship during a conferral ceremony at Innovation Campus.
He was recognised for his significant and far-reaching contribution to the science of bushfires as well as his generous mentorship of PhD students and early career researchers.
Professor Bradstock was surprised by the honour and thrilled that it would allow him to maintain a close relationship with the University where he has spent close to 15 years of his working life.
“Being named an Emeritus Professor is an enormous privilege. I am incredibly honoured,” Professor Bradstock said. “It also means that I can stay in the game and stay in touch. I feel that I still have a lot to contribute. Having this honour and maintaining the connection with UOW allows me to get back to my research interests.”
Over the years, Professor Bradstock has become one of the most influential and prominent bushfires researchers in Australia, and indeed around the world.
His scientific work forms one of the two pillars of the Australian fire ecology edifice. In the 1980s, as part of his PhD, Professor Bradstock pioneered research on plant responses to fire. In the 1990s, he took those ideas to the next level in some of the first studies globally to model and predict population-level extinction risk under different fire regimes. He later expanded the scope of his scientific work again to study risk to human values.
This research has been fundamental in establishing a framework for the understanding of how and why large bushfires occur and predict their impact on the environment and landscape. Professor Bradstock’s advice to fire ecologists and fire managers has always been to focus on quantifiable risk to humans, communities and environmental assets, and on the fire regime rather than individual fires.
When asked why he was drawn to the study of fire, Professor Bradstock’s enthusiasm for his field of expertise becomes immediately apparent.
“Fire is the key to understanding Australian environments,” he said. “Virtually all Australian land ecosystems experience fire. To understand our environments, you have to understand fire. It is as simple as that.
“The interaction of fire with our environment of often subtle and indirect, away from the spectacular effects that you see when a place is burnt. The after effects are complex and long-lasting.
“Fire is also a fascinating subject, because it can be approached from so many different angles. It is really challenging, interesting, and diverse.”
At UOW, Professor Bradstock was the founder and then Director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management for Bushfires, followed by the NSW Bushfire Risk Management Research Hub, a collaborative initiative between the State Governemnt, UOW, University of Tasmania, Western Sydney University, and the University of New South Wales. Being the Director of both these research ventures remains one of the highlights of his career.
He has also been the architect in attracting approximately $18 million of research funding to UOW and supervised 22 postgraduate students.
UOW Chancellor Elizabeth Magassy, Emeritus Professor Ross Bradstock, Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Wellings. Photo: Paul Jones
Professor Bradstock was humble, however, when reflecting back on his career and his time at UOW. While there have been many highlights, including building close relationships with fellow bushfire researchers in Australia and around the world, none of it would have been possible without the support of his colleagues.
“For me, collaboration with trusted colleagues and friends has been one of the most important parts of my time at UOW. It has been particularly important to promote the careers of our outstanding young researchers. That mentoring has been so rewarding and so important to the centre.
“I would really like to pay tribute to my colleagues at UOW, and the many wonderful people I have worked with, particularly Professor Owen Price [now Director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires]. Also, I would very much like to thank Emeritus Professor Rob Wheelan and Jack Baker, who were both instrumental in encouraging me to come to UOW in the first place in 2006.”
Since last summer’s devastating bushfire season, the demand for and interest in Professor Bradstock’s research has only increased. Along with his colleagues, Professor Bradstock played a significant role in responding to the NSW Bushfire Inquiry held earlier this year, contributing 18 separate reports to the inquiry and serving as an expert witness.
This is the time, in the aftermath of the fires, Professor Bradstock said, when researchers spring into action and sift through the data to learn more about how fires behave and how it interacts with the environment, particularly in light of a changing climate.
“The sheer amount of data and the incredible research opportunities created by the fires are almost overwhelming,” Professor Bradstock said. “Whole research agendas are going to be shaped for many years to come. We are just starting to come to grips with it.
“I’m going to be taking part in research all over the state, assisting on some of the projects we’ve got underway, and helping out with studies that I had a hand in setting up. It is very exciting for me. The more you go out in the field, the more it stimulates your enthusiasm. I’m looking forward to going back and looking at those fundamental ecological questions.”