Science at the Local fires up for 2021

Hamish Clarke is known to many in the Lower Mountains as one half of the successful community science series Science at the Local, along with his pal Kevin Joseph. What community members may not realise is that his day job is bushfire researcher.

"It's a fascinating and complex topic," Dr Clarke said from the rear deck of his Warrimoo home. "One that's a little close to home, actually, given we're north facing, on top of a ridge and backing onto bush."

Blue Mountains residents are no stranger to bushfire risk, and while the wet summer has dampened risk for now, many harbour strong memories of last year's Black Summer fires not to mention those from years past.

Dr Clarke is part of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong, a multidisciplinary team studying everything from bark traits to bushfire behaviour, fire severity, smoke and Indigenous cultural burning.

"It's a terrific place to work, great and talented people, really good relationships with fire managers," he said. "We did a range of work on the Black Summer fires for the NSW Bushfire Inquiry, all of it publicly available. We're still learning from those fires and will be for many years to come."

Dr Clarke followed a winding path to get to his current position, having studied business and international studies, then biochemistry and neuroscience, followed by a stint in the climate change science section of the NSW environment department.

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He is currently working on a major project looking at regional patterns in risk mitigation from prescribed burning. "It's safe to say there's no one size fits all approach to hazard reduction burning," he said. "There's a real push now to quantify the drivers of risk, and identify the most cost-effective options. And you can't leave climate change out of the equation."

Universities have been hit hard by the pandemic, with pay cuts and thousands of jobs lost across the country.

"I'm lucky to still have a job. Working from home has been a silver lining too."

Meanwhile Science at the Local hopes to return with in-person events at Springwood Sports Club later in the year. They will also be partnering with the Blue Mountains Gazette over the year to bring readers more stories from scientists living and working in the Mountains.

"There's quite a few of us out there! I'm looking forward to helping share their stories," said Dr Clarke.