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Throughout human history, fire has been a primary agent of change. Its great importance to humans, the mystery of its powers, and its seeming capriciousness has made fire divine or sacred to many peoples.
Fire is an essential part of our natural environment. Forest fires, mostly caused by lightning, erupt in many parts of Canada whenever dry and hot temperatures permit. On average, about 10,100 forest fires occur annually in Canada. These forest fires play an important role in most forest ecosystems, helping to maintain their health and diversity.
Historically, major forest fires have destroyed large stands of timber and taken many lives. This is true from the East Coast, with fires such as the Great Miramichi Fire in New Brunswick on October 5, 1825, to the West Coast, an example being the fire in the Elk River district of British Columbia in August 1908. Fires have also hit hard in mining towns, notably in Northern Ontario. Among those are the Porcupine fire of July 11, 1911 and the Matheson fire of July 29, 1916.
Great fires still ravage Canadian forests, but modern detection methods, firefighting techniques, professional fire brigades, modern water mains and pumps, and air evacuations have lessened the threat of forest fires. The challenge is to find ways to effectively balance the positive ecological aspects of fire with the negative social and economic impacts.
A locomotive spark, a careless drop of a cigarette, or an unattended candle could accidentally cause a major fire. Numerous cities have had disastrous accidental fires, particularly in the 19th century when crowded, wooden buildings were concentrated in small urban neighbourhoods. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, major fires occurred 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), and in Toronto, Ontario (the "Great Fire" of April 19, 1904). The Halifax Explosion of December 6, 1917 and the fires that followed, probably rank as Canada's most famous disaster and the worst single misfortune in our history.
Arson has also played a role in many major fires. One of the earliest recorded fires in Canada was an incendiary fire in Quebec, in 1629, during Champlain's tenure as governor. Another example was the fire at the Knights of Columbus hostel in St. John's, Newfoundland on December 12, 1942 -- one of the most deadly structural fires in Canadian history.
As an agent of change, fire incidence has oftentimes resulted in technological and socio-demographical changes, city development and planning, and fire protection plans and equipments. Cities have had to rebuild with more stone, firebreaks and wider streets. Change is inevitable and constant.