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We often hear about destructive fires in the media. We know that fire is dangerous and can cause severe damage and destruction and, at times, death.

Since our earliest days, humans have sought to find out what fire is, how it starts and what keeps it going. Scientists today are continually researching for ways to reduce its destructiveness or even prevent it from happening.

We are learning to manage fire. Throughout New Zealand’s history, there have been many kinds of destructive fires. The Ballantynes department store fire in Christchurch in 1947 was the worst in New Zealand’s history – 41 people died. Other fires have included the destruction of houses, factories, storehouses, shops, land and bush (wildfires).

Through learning about the science of fire, scientists have been discovering better ways to manage fire. Some of this research has resulted in:

  • detecting fires more quickly
  • planning buildings and other structures for ease of evacuation in a fire
  • making fire-retardant materials for furniture
  • planning to prevent, reduce and manage fire outbreaks in rural areas.

Even fire walkers use scientific knowledge of fire to walk on fire without getting harmed!

What is fire?

So what actually is fire? What causes things to ignite? How does it get out of control, and how can we stop it? How can we prevent it from starting or reduce its destructiveness?

Sometimes we might think that fire is a living thing! It moves, ‘eats’ things and seems to breathe. The ancient Greeks thought it was one of four major elements, along with water, earth and air. They could feel, see and smell fire just like they could the earth, water and air, but fire is something completely different. Earth, water and air are all matter – they are made up of billions of atoms. Fire is not matter at all, and it is not a living thing. It’s the visible effect of a chemical reaction between oxygen in the atmosphere and some sort of fuel.

It is important to understand this chemical reaction and how it happens. This helps us to know how to prevent and manage fire disasters.

This Science Learning Hub context explores the science of fire and the research being done in New Zealand that helps us to manage fire.

Nature of Science

Loss of life and property in fire disasters has prompted scientists to study fire and fire behaviour in both structural and rural fires. It has only been since the early 1990s that fire research has developed in New Zealand. Organisations involved with fire research collaborate with each other and work with fire science organisations internationally, combining ideas and finances to provide more substantial work.