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Vestal Virgins, Roman religion, human ancestors, early people, subway cars

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Fire, reaction involving fuel and oxygen that produces heat and light. Early humans used fire to warm themselves, cook food, and frighten away predators. Sitting around a fire may have helped unite and strengthen family groups and speed the evolution of early society. Fire enabled our human ancestors to travel out of warm, equatorial regions and, eventually, spread throughout the world. But fire also posed great risks and challenges to early people, including the threat of burns, the challenge of controlling fire, the greater challenge of starting a fire, and the threat of wildfires.

As early civilizations developed, people discovered more uses for fire. They used fire to provide light, to make better tools, and as a weapon in times of war. Early religions often included fire as a part of their rituals, reflecting its importance to society. Early myths focused on fire’s power. One such myth related the story of Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth. To honor Vesta, the high priest of the Roman religion periodically chose six priestesses, called Vestal Virgins, to keep a fire going in a community hearth. Keeping a controlled fire burning played a central part in communal life. Before the invention of modern implements, starting a fire, especially in adverse weather, usually required much time and labor to generate sufficient friction to ignite kindling. If people let their fire go out, they had to spend considerable time to start it again before they could eat and get warm.

Today people naturally focus not on starting fires but on using fire productively and on preventing or extinguishing unwanted fires. We use fire to cook food and to heat our homes. Industries use fire to fuel power plants that produce electricity. At the same time, fire remains a potentially destructive force in people’s lives. Natural fires started by lightning and volcanoes destroy wildlife and landscapes. Careless disposal of cigarettes and matches or carelessness with campfires leads to many wildfires. Fires in the home and workplace damage property and cause injury and death. Fires usually cost the United States and Canada more each year than floods, tornadoes, and other natural disasters combined.

Scientists and fire protection engineers work together to help people use fire safely and productively. Smoke detectors and automatic sprinklers in homes and the workplace have reduced property loss, deaths, and injuries due to fire. Engineers continue to develop more fire-resistant materials for use in furniture, buildings, automobiles, subway cars, and ships. The development of new engineering approaches and new building codes and standards has led to safer buildings without dramatically increasing costs of construction.


Barnett, Jonathan R., Dr., B.S., M.S., Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Fire Protection Protection Engineering, Worcester Polythechnic Institute.

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