Kevin Tolhurst gives farewell talk on complexity, bushfires and engagement

Associate Professor Kevin Tolhurst AM, one of Australia’s pre-eminent bushfire experts and co-creator of the widely used Phoenix RAPIDFIRE bushfire prediction program, has retired after more than three decades of forestry and bushfire research at the University of Melbourne.

As snow fell outside the auditorium at the University’s Creswick campus, where Associate Professor Tolhurst spent much of his career, he warmed the crowd attending his farewell seminar with a history of bushfire research in Australia. He contrasted the thousands of years of knowledge accumulation and exchange amongst Indigenous Australians, who he said were skilled users of fires, with the arrival of Europeans, who initially ignored this accumulated wisdom and had to learn about fire from scratch.

He stressed that the primary aim of bushfire management is not to control and repress fires, it’s to work out how to live with fires.

Euan Ferguson, former Chief Officer of the Victorian CFA and University of Melbourne alumnus, sent a message praising Associate Professor Tolhurst's legacy of research and education.

"I have always admired the way that Kevin is able to undertake high level research, but still remain practical and grounded," Mr Ferguson said.

"He was always able to simply explain what this (or that) observation meant to the firefighter on the ground. I recall a short video he used to play of a burn-off of a pile of forest litter (probably from his back yard). This became no casual bonfire, but a demonstration of the effect of landscape on fire behaviour. He just seemed to bring out a teaching point in everything he did. Many research lessons and teachings focused on safety - of the community and of firefighters.

"There are several generations of students who will never forget the lessons imparted by Kevin. Through those students, now practitioners, Kevin continues to make a difference every day in many workplaces and places of learning. What a tremendous legacy to be proud of."

Associate Professor Tolhurst has been a leading Australian researcher and commentator on bushfire research, monitoring and preparedness. With his colleague Derek Chong he developed the Phoenix RAPIDFIRE bushfire modelling and prediction software that has been used to successfully predict the path of dangerous bushfires, and to better organise planned burns.

Among his many distinctions, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2015, and this year received the prestigious Ember Award from the International Association of Wildland Fire, for his contributions to bushfire science and his skill at bridging research and operations.

Watch Associate Professor Tolhurst’s farewell lecture below.