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McArthur, Alan Grant (1923–1978)

Alan McArthur, known throughout Australia and overseas for his expertise in bush fire research, behaviour and control, died on 9 November 1978 in the Canberra hospital after a long illness.

Alan had a distinguished career as forester, research worker and administrator, but probably his most outstanding and enduring contribution to Australian forestry was in the field of fire control and use. Alan’s innovative research enabled him to quantify the major variables affecting fire behaviour and lead to the development of fire behaviour guides which could accurately predict fire intensity and the resulting forest damage. Alan produced the first prescribed burning guide for eucalypt forests in 1962. Other researchers had used his experimental techniques to produce prescribed burning guides for a variety of forest types. Alan recognised the importance of fine-fuel loads in controlling fire behaviour under dangerous fire weather conditions and vigourously advocated fuel reduction by prescribed burning as the most practical method of controlling high intensity wildfires in the dry forest types.

Alan McArthur was born in New South Wales in July 1923, was educated at Yanco Agricultural High School and obtained his B.Sc. (Forestry) from Sydney University and a Diploma in Forestry from the Australian Forestry School in 1944. He started his career with the Forestry Commission of N .S. W. in 1941 and on graduation worked on forest assessment and plantation establishment in the Tumut and Orange districts. In 1951 he transferred to fire control duties and became the first Fire Control Officer of the Hume-Snowy Fire District, a regional fire prevention scheme which later became a model for similar organisations throughout the State and in other parts of Australia.

In November 1953 Alan McArthur transferred to the Forestry and Timber Bureau as the first professional officer engaged full-time on fire research. The next fifteen years were devoted mainly to research into fire behaviour in a wide range of fuel types, the development of fire danger rating systems for forests and grasslands, and the development of prescribed burning guides for eucalypt and conifer forests. Other research interests during this period included the behaviour of mass fires, fire behaviour in the tropics, and the development of a watershed research program to investigate the hydrologic characteristics of eucalypt and pine catchments and the measurement of water quality. He also lectured in fire control at the Australian Forestry School and later at the Department of Forestry of the Australian National University. His work took him to most regions of Australia as well as overseas and his acknowledged expertise in forest and rural fire control resulted in his close involvement in official enquiries into major fire disasters in several States.

Alan McArthur’s capacity to pass on his considerable knowledge of fire behaviour earned the respect and gratitude of research workers and practical fire fighters alike. In 1961 he was technical adviser to a Royal Commission into Bushfires in 1960 and 1961 in Western Australia; in 1967 a member of the Board of Inquiry into the Tasmanian fires; in 1970 a member of a panel looking into nuclear effects in the forest environment, as part of a technical cooperation program on mass fires with the U.S.A., U.K. and Canada. In 1975 his system for rating fire danger, which is used throughout Australia by the Bureau of Meteorology for forecasting the likelihood of dangerous fire weather, was adopted by the Food and Agricultural Organisation’s Forestry Department as the most suitable fire danger rating system for use in developing countries.

In 1970, Alan McArthur became Director of the Forest Research Institute of the Forestry and Timber Bureau, an office he performed with ability while still maintaining an active role in fire research. When in July 1975 the research functions of the Forestry and Timber Bureau were taken over by the newly formed Division of Forest Research of CSIRO, he transferred to the new Division as Principal Research Officer.

Alan wrote some 60 papers on fire behaviour, fire effects and watershed management, and has contributed chapters on fire protection in Growing Trees on Australian Farms and The Use of Trees and Shrubs in the Dry Country of Australia, both major publications of the Forestry and Timber Bureau. In 1978, together with Harry Luke, he produced the book Bushfires in Australia which will undoubtedly remain as a major text for Australian Fire Control for many years.

Alan has had a long association with the Institute and has taken an active part in its affairs both at Divisional level and as a member of Council in 1964-65. In recognition of his outstanding contribution to forestry in Australia he was made a Fellow of the Institute at about the time he retired through ill health, in July 1978.

In addition to recognition of his professional achievements, Alan McArthur has earned the personal esteem and affection of the many members of the forestry profession with whom he had close contact during his long career.

Original publication

  • Australian Forestry, vol 41, no 4, 1978, pp 189-90

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Citation details

'McArthur, Alan Grant (1923–1978)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/mcarthur-alan-grant-10889/text30016, accessed 21 September 2017.

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