Responding to Tragedy

This illustration by artist Dylan Martorell is based on the Victorian Fire Map

Alumnus and staff member Dr Kevin Tolhurst (DipFor 1976 DipForSc(Hons) 1980 PhD 1997) is a reluctant fire expert. If it wasn’t for his unplanned involvement in a 1984 fire ecology research project, the forestry graduate may never have become one of the country’s most respected authorities on bushfire behaviour. Now a senior lecturer in fire ecology and management at the University of Melbourne after more than 20 years studying fire behaviour, including 22 years with the Forests Commission Victoria as a firefighter crew member, communications officer and fire controller, Dr Tolhurst’s expertise has made him both an accurate predictor and interpreter of fire behaviour.

On site at the Integrated Emergency Co-ordination Centre on February 7, the day of the Black Saturday fires, Dr Tolhurst used sophisticated fire modelling software to help determine where the fires might spread but, he admits, “the accuracy of the predictions depended on good information. You need good intelligence to make a good prediction and it was very hard to get good intelligence. We didn’t always know where the fires were and how they were behaving.” Nevertheless, Dr Tolhurst and his team predicted the fires would sweep across Kinglake and Marysville as well as a number of other smaller towns and communities.

“There are so few people
with a good understanding
of fire, you really need experience and knowledge to go hand in hand.”

Dr Kevin Tolhurst

Playing a key role in the 2009 Bushfires Royal Commission, his evidence will no doubt inform the Commission’s recommendations about ways to improve communication in fire emergencies. “There are so few people with a good understanding of fire,” says Dr Tolhurst. “You really need experience and knowledge to go hand in hand. You only get real understanding when the two go together.”

Dr Tolhurst’s goal is to lose the title of Australia’s only fire expert. Through ongoing education and training he hopes to bring a better understanding of fire to a greater number of people. Currently developing a Risk Management Model for Bushfires as part of the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, and involved in the mentoring of bush fire analysis trainees, Dr Tolhurst is also developing a new course for University of Melbourne Land and Environment students interested in knowing more about fire behaviour. To be offered for the first time in 2010, the course has already attracted keen interest from students from a range of schools and faculties.

Captain of the Panton Hill Fire Brigade, Mike Nicholls was also working on February 7. In a fire truck near St Andrews, Dr Nicholls spent a day and a night fighting fires with a group of other CFA volunteers. An experimental psychologist in the School of Behavioural Science, Dr Nicholls says the experience of fighting such an extreme bushfire has led to a new understanding of the effect of stress on memory.

“I remember at a briefing after the fire listening to the recollection of the order in which events occurred. Everyone had a different order. And one firefighter drove from Kinglake down to Panton Hill, but said that he couldn’t remember a thing about the drive.”

“Your adrenalin keeps you focused on the task at hand,” says Dr Nicholls, “and when you try to remember events later, there are big chunks missing.”

Dr Kevin Tolhurst recently gave a lecture as part of the Dean’s Lecture Series, entitled Bushfire behaviour under extreme climate, which can be listened to via a podcast at

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