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  • A timeline showing some events and disasters relating to fire and how humans have learnt to manage this chemical reaction.

    Early use of fire

    People use fire to keep warm, give light and give protection from wild animals. Fire is also used to cook food and eventually to extract metal from rock, shape weapons and tools and to make pottery from clay.

    400BC – Empedocles

    Greek philosopher Empedocles comes up with the idea of elements, but not the 90 chemical elements of nature that we know about today. He thought there were only 4 elements – earth, air, water and fire.

    300BC – Aristotle

    Aristotle, a famous Greek philosopher, says that any of the four elements could be changed into another element by adding heat or moisture. For example, by adding heat to water, the water would become air.

    AD6 – First fire brigade

    The first fire brigade is set up in Rome after fire damages the city. Emperor Augustus sets up a fire brigade with 7,000 full-time firefighters called ‘vigiles’.

    AD64 – Burning of Rome

    Ancient Rome burns over 9 days. The ramshackle wooden buildings catch fire easily. When the city is rebuilt, the streets are made wider to stop fire spreading.

    1212 – London Bridge burns

    London Bridge burns down. In the panic to escape, at least 3,000 people die.

    1600s – Robert Boyle and the elements

    Robert Boyle, an Irish scientist and the first real chemist, proves that earth, air, water and fire are not true elements.

    1666 – The Great Fire of London

    1700s – Phlogiston?

    Georg Ernst Stahl, a German scientist, says anything that can burn contains an odourless, colourless and weightless substance called ‘phlogiston’. Scientists looking for phlogiston study gases, which leads to the discovery of carbon dioxide, hydrogen and oxygen.

    1772 – Chemistry of fire discovered

    French chemist Antoine Lavoisier finds that oxygen combines with substances when they burn and that there is no such thing as phlogiston.

    1827 – The first match

    English pharmacist John Walker invents the match.

    1871 – The Great Fire of Chicago

    This fire is believed to have started when a cow kicked over a lantern in a barn. Even the greasy surface of the river catches fire. 250 people die.

    1923 – Tokyo fires

    An earthquake causes fires in Tokyo that kill 140,000 people.

    1947 – Ballantynes fire

    The Ballantynes department store fire in Christchurch is the worst in New Zealand history. 41 people die.

    1983 – Ash Wednesday fire

    A terrible bush fire in southern Australia claims 75 lives. Years of severe drought and extreme weather combined to create one of Australia’s worst fire days in a century. Ash Wednesday is one of Australia’s costliest natural disasters.

    1991 – Oil fires in Kuwait

    During the Gulf War, soldiers invade Kuwait and set fire to about 800 oil wells. It takes 8 months to put the fires out – one of the biggest fire events in history.

    1999 – Mont Blanc tunnel fire

    Fire sweeps through the Mont Blanc tunnel between France and Italy. 41 people die. It takes 3 years to rebuild the tunnel and have it working again.

    2002 – Wildfires in Sydney

    Wildfires threaten Sydney as they destroy 173,000 acres of bush and scrubland on the outskirts. The sky over Sydney is shrouded in smoke as the fires rage around the city.

    2007 – Californian wildfires

    500,000 people flee wildfires in Southern California. 2 people die and 1,200 homes and businesses are destroyed.

    2009 – Melbourne bushfires

    Fierce bushfires in Melbourne claim over 200 lives and leave thousands homeless. It is the worst bushfire Australia has ever had.

    2013 – Lac-Mégantic, Canada

    In July an unattended freight train carrying crude oil derailed in the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic. The subsequent fire and explosion resulted in at least 42 deaths and the destruction of most of the downtown buildings.

    2015 – Port Tianjin explosions, China

    A series of chemical explosions in August 2015 killed at least 173 people, damaged 300 buildings and over 10,000 vehicles.

    2017 – Grenfell Tower, London

    In June 2017 a fire ripped through the 24-storey Grenfell Tower tower block in London, causing the deather of 72 people.

    2018 – Camp Fire, another Californian wildfire

    As at the start of 2019, the Camp Fire is the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. It took 15 days to contain, killed 86 people and destroyed over 18,800 buildings.

    Useful link

    For a more detailed list of fires, see this list on Wikipedia.

      Published 9 November 2009, Updated 22 January 2019 Referencing Hub articles
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