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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 is fire? What causes things to ignite? How does fire behave, how does it get out of control and how can we stop it? How can we prevent it from starting or reduce its destructiveness? Find out more in the articles Slowing the burning, A truck and a tunnel, Managing fire risk in the outdoors, Invasive weeds and wildfires and how Low flammability plants could help our homes survive bushfires.

    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.

    Take up the challenge

    There are a number of activities that support student learning. Hands-on activities include:

    Drama in the microworld – using drama to model atoms, molecules, heat transfer and combustion.

    Light a candle – observe and investigate a candle flame and the process of burning.

    The great candle experiment – the oft-used inverted jar in a saucer of water but without the common misconceptions.

    Putting out the fire – investigate ways of extinguishing fire, using knowledge of the fire triangle and fire chemistry.

    The flying teabag – investigating convection.

    Exploding flour – observing combustion.

    Literacy-based activites include:

    Fire risk assessment – use of an interactive to identify and define rural fire risks.

    Fire safety – using scenarios involving fire risks and safety plans.

    Fire in Antartica – a literacy activity using an online article. 

    Ethics in fire science – develop critical thinking skills through ethical discussions.

    Teacher resources include Alternative conceptions about fire and Unit plan: Fire.

    Question bank

    The Investigating fire – question bank provides a list of questions about fire and places where their answers can be found. The questions support an inquiry approach.

    Key terms

    For explanations of key concepts, see Investigating fire – key terms


    Explore the timeline to look at some of the events and disasters relating to fire and how humans have learnt to manage this chemical reaction.

    Across our year 7/8 classes, we make considerable use of the Science Learning Hub. With the Fire resources, we use a predict, observe, explain format - prefaced with the question, 'What makes science, science?'

    The favourite activities are Exploding flour and The great candle experiment.

    Tony Roberts, teacher

    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.

      Published 9 November 2009, Updated 17 October 2018 Referencing Hub articles