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Educational Resources

Lesson 5 - Fire Disaster Lesson


In this lesson your students will learn the difference between primary and secondary sources and the strengths and weaknesses of these sources of information while comparing three Canadian fire disasters.


  1. Bookmark the SOS! Canadian Disasters website

  2. Print the Handout 5.1: Sources of Information Chart and make copies for your students.


120 minutes



Canada has many thousands of fires every year. These are only disastrous to a few families or a few people and certainly could not be classified as a Canadian disaster.

Fire can become disastrous simply by the laws of nature; forest fire, mostly caused by lightning, has erupted in many parts of Canada whenever dry and hot temperature permits. On average, about 10,100 forest fires occur annually in Canada. However, forest fire plays an important role in most forest ecosystems because it has helped to maintain their health and diversity. They can, however, become a major disaster by burning into communities and causing major devastation. There are many examples of that; however, for this lesson we have selected the Porcupine fire of 1911. It was one of the most devastating ever to ravage the northland of Ontario.

Numerous cities have had disastrous fires, particularly in the 19th century when crowded, wooden buildings were concentrated. For instance:

  • in St. John's, Newfoundland (February 12, 1816, November 7, 1817, November 21, 1817, June 9, 1846, and July 8-9, 1892)
  • in Québec, Quebec (May 28 and June 28, 1845)
  • in Saint John, New Brunswick (June 20, 1877)
  • in New Westminster, British Columbia (September 10, 1898)
  • in Toronto Great Fire, Ontario (April 19, 1904).

Yet, the Halifax Explosion of December 6, 1917 probably ranks as Canada's most famous disaster and the worst single misfortune in our history. We have selected two major city fires for the focus of this lesson the Halifax Explosion of December 6, 1917 and the New Westminster, British Columbia fire of September 10, 1898.

Body of Lesson

The challenge of this lesson is to examine the sources of information that an investigator, historian, journalist, a writer of non-fiction or even historical fiction can use to tell the story of these Canadian disasters.

  1. Direct your students to read the essay, Defining Primary and Secondary Resources by Michael Eamon. You will find it at

  2. Discuss what a primary document is and how a secondary source is different. Also discuss the strengths and weaknesses of both as sources of information in their research.


  1. Now direct your students to the sources of information for the three fire disasters we are studying:
    • Halifax Explosion of December 6, 1917
    • New Westminster, British Columbia fire of September 10, 1898
    • Porcupine fire of 1911

      They need to find at least 10 sources of information. They should look for different types of sources, both secondary and primary.

  2. To help your students organize their research, ask them to complete the Handout 5.1: Sources of Information Chart.

    Halifax Regional Municipality


    CBC Archives

    Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management

    Maritime Museum of the Atlantic

    Guide to archival materials on Halifax Explosion
    Tragedy on the Home Front


Review the chart completed by your students and conduct a whole class discussion about what they have learned about primary and secondary sources from their research:

  • Are some sources of information better than others?
  • What type of information do they think is best?
  • If they were an historian investigating an event what sources would they use?

Assessment Opportunities

  1. Did he/she participate cooperatively in group and class discussions?

  2. Was the Handout 5.1 Sources of Information Chart completed thoroughly with clear detailed answers?

  3. Did he/she work efficiently and cooperatively on the computer and Internet to find the required information?

  4. Has she/he demonstrated knowledge of both primary and secondary and the nature of and effect of Fire Disasters? Do they know what different types of information or insight that primary and secondary sources can bring to a story? Do they understand the strengths and weaknesses or limitations of the different types of sources?