Kevin Tolhurst - a life dedicated to bushfire science | Natural Hazards Research Australia

Kevin Tolhurst - a life dedicated to bushfire science

Release date

24 October 2023

The bushfire research community has been saddened by the death of Associate Professor Kevin Tolhurst.

As one of Australia’s leading scientists in the field of fire ecology and management, Dr Tolhurst was based in the Department of Forest and Ecosystem Science in Creswick at University of Melbourne and was a key researcher for many years in the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC.

Although he had retired from his full-time research, in recent years he continued as an honorary professor at the university and was involved in early discussions on potential Natural Hazards Research Australia projects. His sudden death in mid-October followed a public meeting in regional Victoria on fuel reduction which was typical of his dedication to local forest fire management.

Dr Tolhurst’s research knowledge was provided as practical, expert advice on fire behaviour and fire suppression strategies for many major bushfires in recent decades, including the 2019/2020 Black Summer fires.

In 2015 he received a Member (AM) of the Order of Australia award, recognising him for his significant service to science through land and bushfire management, and to the community through providing expert advice at fire emergencies. The citation listed some of his achievements:

  • Associate Professor, School of Ecosystem and Forest Services, The University of Melbourne, since 2011; Senior Lecturer, since 1997.
  • Project Leader and researcher, Bushfire CRC, from 2003; Co-developer, Phoenix Fire Behaviour model, 2009. Member, Expert panel, 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, 2009. Expert Advisor, Black Saturday fires, 2009; The Great Divide fires, 2007; The Grampians and Moondarra fires, 2006; The Alpine fires, 2003; The Sydney bushfires, 2001; The Grampians Mt Difficult fire, 1999; The Linton fires, 1998; The Caledonia fires, 1998; The Alpine National Park fires, 1998; The Blue Mountains fires, 1994.

Dr Tolhurst’s research activities at the CRCs centred around developing a bushfire risk management decision support system that ultimately led to the nationally significant Phoenix RapidFire bushfire simulator.

His Fire Management Business Model showed how 54 factors of bushfire risk management interacted to reduce bushfire risk for a given level of resources allocated to each element. Having established this model, he characterised and quantified the effect of different bushfire management strategies on reducing the level of bushfire risk. He then concluded that the best way to characterise fires across the landscape was to use a fire simulator to allow analysis to be spatially and temporally explicit as well as objective and repeatable.

In 2005 Dr Tolhurst and colleagues at the University of Melbourne were funded by the Bushfire CRC to build and merge two models: Phoenix, which described what a bushfire is like at any point in the landscape, and RapidFire, which analysed how a fire interacts with important assets, such as houses, powerlines, catchments and biodiversity.

Initially, Phoenix RapidFire could only be used as a fire characterisation simulator. Once that was adequately established, the researchers added more functionality to assess the relative level of bushfire risk. This allowed the model to be used for planning of prescribed burns, rather than just as a response to wildfires.

The widespread and national use of Phoenix RapidFire has resulted in a vast number of benefits for Australian communities, with many examples drawn from recent bushfires. The software has predicted the path and intensity of fires which have then allowed appropriate directions to fire crews on the ground and warnings to affected communities.

At the 5th International Fire Behaviour and Fuels conference in Melbourne in 2016, hosted by the International Association of Wildland Fire and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, Dr Tolhurst reflected on his career in fire science with a keynote presentation "Fire is the Wicked Problem".