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Indian Camps on Salteaux River, Alberta 1917

THE FIRST PEOPLES found fire a useful survival tool for warmth, food preparation, making tools, and driving wild game.

Aboriginal bands sometimes lit fires to alter their environment. They cleared land for crop planting, or to encourage the growth of blueberries, and other plants. Using fire in these ways didn't radically alter wilderness ecosystems. Lightning was still the main cause of wildfire.

When the first peoples were threatened by fire, they were forced to move out of its path or perish. Their sparse settlements and nomadic lifestyle helped protect them from large-scale loss of life and property.

ENTER THE NEWCOMERS. Thousands of years after the first peoplesmade their homes on this continent, European explorers found themselves on the shores of the land we call Canada. They arrived over 500 years ago.

Cabot Strait, Newfoundland

Fishing. Soon European fishing boats trolled the waters and landed on the nearby shores. During the 16th century, fisherman off the coast of present-day Newfoundland were known to deliberately set fire to the woods along the coast to discourage settlement. In 1620 all the woods within one mile of the coast were destroyed by fire, either through deliberate intent or carelessness.

Fur trade. A few decades later the demand for beaver pelts created a new industry, the fur trade. Fur traders pushed up the St. Lawrence River and deep into the wilderness interior. Trading posts sprang up along the fur trading routes. There is no doubt fur traders caused fire, but fur trading posts could also be in serious danger from fire. In 1836 Factor William Prudden fought desperately to save Fort Carlton from a 'rampaging plains fire', described in Fire and the Fur Trade.

Fort Carlton, Hudson Bay Fur Trading Post

Settlement followed. As settlers moved across the continent, they used fire to level the forests for homesteads and farms, making little effort to control it. Horrific fires resulted.

Settler's Cabin, Haileybury Fire
  • In the autumn of 1784, after a tinder-dry summer, a New Brunswick settler thoughtlessly set fire to a brush pile. The fire, fanned by high winds, destroyed the area for miles around, graphically described in Old Time Conflagration.
  • Over and over again settlers fought desperately for their lives and homesteads. In the fall of 1886, after a prolonged drought, Manitoba settlers beat back a prairie fire that threatened to engulf them. See Pioneers Battle Prairie Fire.
  • In Ontario three major forest fires between 1911 and 1922 took a deadly toll. The survivors fled, literally walking through the fire to safety, as a survivor recounted in The Blazing Northland. Or they submerged themselves in the nearest lake, a story found in The Great Fire of 1922.

Slash piles from the logging, mining and railway operations were a major fire hazard during the dry season.

Steam locomotives on the newly-built railroads produced sparks which led to serious fires. Fire starts along the railway rights-of-way were astoundingly high. In Newfoundland the Chief Woods Ranger counted 63 fires over a distance of six miles of railway track.

Villages, towns, and cities took root. The population grew. By the mid-1800s people, not lightning, were the chief cause of forest fire.

Photo Credit: Natural Resources Canada [Cabot Strait, Newfoundland]
Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre [Settler's Cabin, Haileybury Fire]
Provincial Archives of Manitoba [Fort Carlton, Hudson Bay Fur Trading Post]
Alberta Sustainable Resource Development [Indian Camps on Salteaux River, Alberta 1917]
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