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Robert Henry (Harry) Luke (1909–2000)

by Phil Cheney

Last December, Harry Luke passed away at the age of 91. Harry was such a likeable man and enjoyed life so much that recall of his considerable achievements seem to be overshadowed by personal anecdotes. Those who knew him all have their favourite stories and this account of his career cannot pass without an account of how he touched me. He rarely talked about himself or his achievements — he always seemed more interested in the activities of others — so any account by a third party will be incomplete. No doubt I have missed some important facets of his career but I would like to concentrate this article on his contribution to forestry and fire management in Australia, and of course, the inevitable personal anecdote.

Robert Henry (Harry) Luke was born in Box Hill, Victoria on Melbourne Cup day in 1909. He studied forestry at both Australian Forestry Schools; first at the Victorian Forestry School at Creswick in 1926–27, and second, after joining the New South Wales Forestry Commission as a cadet, the Australian Forestry School at Canberra in 1930–31.

In the 1930s, Harry was a sub-district forester at several locations on the north coast of NSW. In 1935, after three months training in Queensland, he led a mill scale study team across New South Wales. In 1938, he was given specialised duties in fire control throughout NSW. During World War II, Harry served in the AIF forestry unit in New Guinea and New Britain.

After the war, Harry was appointed Fire Control Officer for NSW, a position he held for 21 years. After brief stints as Deputy Chief Forest Management and Chief of the Marketing Division, Harry was seconded to the Chief Secretary for specialised fire control duties including a revision of the NSW Bush Fires Act.

Harry was a forester. He believed in forestry and more importantly, he believed in foresters. He was a founding member of the Institute of Foresters and he was a regular attendee at Institute conferences. In retirement he regularly travelled on forestry tours both in Australia and overseas. He was usually in the front row with a ready and succinct question. He was proud to be a forester and he was proud of the achievements of his colleagues. Harry was awarded the Institute’s N. W. Jolly medal in 1981 for “outstanding service to forestry in Australia, whether published or unpublished”.

In 1985 he was appointed Member in the Order of Australia for service to bushfire prevention and control.

He is probably best known, in Australia and overseas, for his contribution to forest fire control. Harry was the first person in NSW to treat fire control as a science. When a student, his friend and colleague Roy Free found that Harry recognised bushfire as a physical phenomena that was subject to the laws of physics and chemistry, and insisted his colleagues take a more scientific approach to bushfire control. He influenced the late Alan McArthur to leave district forestry and take up a career in bushfire research with the Commonwealth Forest Research Institute.

Harry went on the first Fire Study Tour of the USA organised by FAQ in 1951 — a tour that now takes place every 6 years with reciprocal visits of North American fire officers to Australia in between. Contacts made through these tours have formed a bond between the fire communities of both countries so that in 2000, fire control personnel from Australia and New Zealand were asked go to the US and assist with fire control coordination during a national emergency.

If Alan McArthur was father of fire research in this country, then Harry Luke was a grandfather. Coming onto the fire scene some 30 years after Harry started forestry, I was impressed while still a student, of the practical and pragmatic nature of the man. Alan McArthur would complain that Harry would take the initial results of his research and use them in State Forest guidelines before Alan was ready to publish them.

In 1961 Harry published his book Bushfire Control in Australia (Hodder and Stoughton, 136pp) In this, Harry published the first set of Alan McArthur’s fire behaviour tables. A revised set were published again as NSW Forestry Commission Leaflets on fire danger and prescribed burning before Alan published them graphically in the Forestry and In Timber Bureau Leaflet 80 Controlled Burning in Eucalypt Forests. Harry liked to get things done and the delays of peer review frustrated him.

Harry represented the N.S.W. Forestry Commission on the N.S.W. Bush Fire Committee that was set up by the Government to be concerned with all rural fire protection matters in that State.

In 1950 he initiated the interdepartmental organisation which under his persistent guidance developed the Hume/Snowy Bush Fire Prevention Scheme. This scheme required several organisations such as Forestry Commission, National Parks, Snowy Mountains Authority and several local government Shires to co-operate to build fire trails and carry out other bushfire prevention works. The Scheme became a model for regional fire prevention organisations elsewhere, and in 1958 he succeeded in persuading the NSW Bush Fire Committee to set up six Bush Fire Prevention Schemes along the coast of New South Wales where previously no formal bushfire protection arrangements existed. Today the Bushfires Act requires the formation of Bushfire Management committees in every Council area — a legacy to Harry’s strong desire for mutual co-operation.

Although Harry retired from the Forestry Commission in 1972, he never retired from public service in fire control. He spent nearly six years travelling Australia to collect information for the book Bushfires in Australia, and once again gently bullied Alan McArthur to put his vast knowledge of fire behaviour into print. He worked with the Bush Fires Council of the Northern Territory to establish Regional Fire Prevention Committees. He set out Guidelines for Firebreaks and Fire protection Zones on the urban/bushland interface, recognising the requirements of different aspects and slopes. These guidelines are enshrined in the planning legislation of NSW.

He was a friend, mentor and sounding board for many of us coming into fire control and fire research over more than 50 years. His philosophy on fire control was straight forward — cooperation, access and firebreaks — particularly strategic firebreaks. With increasing pressure to use land for residential, commercial or conservation purposes, the firebreak is seen by some as an unnecessary waste of land. However, with ever increasing values at stake, Harry’s maxims are probably more important today than when he first started pushing them more than 50 years ago.

Harry loved life and lived it to the full. He liked to punt (he would always walk away from any pokie with a substantial payout after dropping a few coins), he liked to chat to the ladies and he loved to write. He was usually the self-appointed minutes secretary at meetings, be they work related or at the local club. And he had a wicked sense of humour. Not so long ago I stayed overnight with Harry on our way up to the Northern Territory. Harry had organised tea at the monthly function at the Hunters Hill RSL club and, so we could enjoy a few drinks together, a lady friend to drive us. Over a smoke and a couple of whiskies before she picked us up Harry confided in me — “I’m a bit worried about tonight Phil.” “Oh yeah how’s that Harry?” “Well the way I figure it — your 55, I’m 85, and my girlfriend’s 70 — and I don’t know which way she’ll go.”

It seemed to me Harry stayed young all his life. He had faith in the young and particularly in forestry. He believed that all of us (foresters) had the capacity to take over where he left off. It will be a hard act to follow and we will miss him greatly.

Original publication

  • Forester , vol 42, no 1 , February 2001 , pp 7-9

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Phil Cheney, 'Luke, Robert Henry (Harry) (1909–2000)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 May 2024.

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