Hazardous smoke from prescribed bushfire burns in the Sydney basin is to be mapped thanks to the deployment of low-cost monitors.

Researchers from the University of Wollongong have launched a program to measure the distribution of smoke from hazard reduction burns and wildfires from Gosford in the north to Nowra in the south, and throughout the Blue Mountains.

Funded by the Office of Environment and Heritage, the two-year project will study whether the overall smoke pollution load in rural and urban areas is higher or lower if areas are subjected to hazard reduction burns, compared to if left to wildfires, which are less frequent but which burn with a greater intensity.

It will also study the effect of weather conditions on smoke production and whether the smoke impact hazard reduction burns can be reduced by avoiding high-risk conditions

Smoke from hazard reduction burns has occasionally blanketed Sydney over the past three years, causing an increase in hospital admissions for the elderly and frail, as well as those with respiratory conditions such as asthma, and those with heart trouble.

One study estimated that 14 people died and 58 people had to be hospitalised when smoke settled on Sydney over six days in May 2016.

Lead researcher Dr Owen Price, from the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfire, says the study will measure 40 prescribed burns, and up to 20 wildfires, in the Sydney basin over the next two years.

“The question is how to achieve a balance between burning larger areas more frequently but in a controlled way, or allowing more intense but less frequent wildfires,” he said.

“One of the problems is that we don’t know a lot about where smoke from fires goes.

“Our data will make accurate predictions far more likely, and help authorities to avoid the smoke pollution and associated health problems that we have seen over Sydney in recent years.”

The study is made possible by sensors developed by the SMART Infrastructure Facility (SMART) at the University of Wollongong.

SMART researcher Dr Hugh Forehead, himself a member of the Rural Fire Service, has developed a sensor for less than $500 that will replace the need to use standard mobile sensors used for air quality measurement, that can cost up to $15,000 each.

“We will supply 12 of these low cost sensors, that will measure particulates in the smoke, and that can be placed around the site of a fire, connected to a portable base station,” Dr Forehead said.

“They are similar to sensors that we have already placed around Liverpool, in south-west Sydney, to measure air quality.”

By the end of the study, authorities will have far greater ability to predict smoke drift over built-up areas and thus far greater ability to control the health effects of bushfire burns.