Bush Fires, Canadian Illustrated News, May 26 1877

At first settlers did not consider free-burning fires in the woods a problem. Fire was a useful tool to clear land for homesteading. When a fire spread unchecked into the surrounding wilderness most settlers were unconcerned – unless they were personally threatened. They were anxious to clear their land as quickly as possible.

As long as Canada’s population was small, and timber had little dollar value, Canadians believed their timber resources were inexhaustible.

Public attitudes changed as wildfire repeatedly took a terrible toll in human life and property.

The earliest laws were concerned with controlling how people handled fire in forested areas.


In 1610, Newfoundland had what was probably the first forest fire legisaltion in North America. Sir John Gray's Charter contained a fire prevention order that stated, “No person shall set fire to the woods”.

During the 1700s, New France (now Quebec) issued several ordinances to curb the setting of fires that threatened personal property, industrial operations, and even disrupted water transport.

Both Nova Scotia and New Brunwick, in 1761 and 1786 respectively, passed acts to prevent 'unseasonable burning and firing of the woods' by 'carelessly or wantonly firing same.'

Prince Edward Island issued a proclamation in 1815 prohibiting the practice of burning trees and brush.

In 1832, the Council of Assinniboia, introduced penalties to combat the prairie fires that plagued western Canada.

Unfortunately, very few people were authorized, or willing,to enforce these early acts and ordinances. Law-makers realized that to be effective, the acts had to provide very clearly for the appointment of sufficient staff to enforce the laws.

Fire Prevention Poster, 1911

Forest fire acts had to be precise, stating just where, when, and how fire could or could not be used. Further acts were passed.

  • 1870  Quebec: L’acte pour la protection des fôrets contre les incendies
  • 1874  British Columbia: The Bush Fire Act
  • 1875  Dominion Lands (included parts of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, and the North West Territories): An Act for the Prevention of Prairie and Forest Fires
  • 1878  Ontario: An Act to Preserve the Forests from Destruction of Fire
  • 1883  Nova Scotia: An Act for the Protection of the Woods Against Fire
  • 1885  New Brunswick: Act to Prevent the Destruction of Woods, Forests and Other Property by Fires
  • 1901  Prince Edward Island: An Act to Prevent the Destruction of Woods, Forests and other Property by Fires
  • 1905  Newfoundland: Forest Fires Act

SPECIFIC FIRE LEGISLATION dealing with wildfire was now in force from British Columbia to Newfoundland. Fire patrols, organized fire detection, and fire fighting agencies evolved from this groundwork.

Photo Credits:
National Library of Canada's website Images Canada [Bush Fires, Canadian Illustrated News, May 26 1877]
Alberta Sustainable Resource Development [Fire Prevention Poster, 1911]
Online Exhibits