Educator Resources

The materials provided in this section of the website are one means of connecting students with the management of public lands and helping them develop skills in issue analysis and problem solving. These materials are designed to supplement your existing curriculum and lesson plans. You are encouraged to regionalize your materials to help students understand that fire is an issue in their own backyards.

Lessons: Fire in My Backyard

Students will learn their awareness of fire in the wildland urban interface and learn fire prevention measures. Students should have an opportunity to learn strategies to protect their home, family and the wildlands.

OVERVIEW

Activities

Discussion of conflicts and difficult decisions made concerning fire and the wildland urban interface.

The wildland urban interface refers to the geographical areas where “urban structures, mainly residences, are built in close proximity to the flammable fuels naturally found in wildland areas, including forests, prairies, hillsides and valleys. The results can be aesthetically desirable...or disastrous”.

Objectives

Students will increase their awareness of fire in the wildland urban interface and learn fire prevention measures.

Students should have an opportunity to learn strategies to protect their home, family and the wildlands. The National Wildland Urban Interface Fire Protection Initiative organized by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) provides an excellent educational experience to help students begin to understand the complexity of the wildland urban interface fire interplay.

Who Class of students.

Where Classroom.

Estimated Time 15–20 minutes.

Materials

  • No special materials required.
  • See references for video, Firesafe Inside and Out.

Subjects Geography, Social Science.

The Issues

In a case study of a destructive wildland urban interface fire, NFPA lists four reasons for the increased risk of fire occurrence in wildland/urban interface:

  • Wildfires continue to ignite and threaten homes in the wildlands.
  • Wildfires continue to present particular problems to fire protection agencies.
  • Lack of good vegetative management predisposes areas to wildfires.
  • Unless specific preventive measures are taken by homeowners and local governments homes will continue to be lost and people’s lives will continue to be in danger.

Background Information

Background for a 15–20 minute discussion with students who are familiar with fire ecology concepts.

As urban areas expand into wildland areas and as an increasing number of vacation homes are built near wildland recreation areas, the conflicts associated with wildland fire become more commonplace. Just as people and their property are threatened by wildland fires, wildlands are threatened by human-caused fires. Thus students, parents and their communities benefit by knowing the risks and protection strategies related to home development in wildlands.

In the 1980s, wildfires burned large tracts of land across the United States. More fires have impacted even larger tracts of land and personal property in the 1990s. A dream home built in an idealistic wildland setting can be razed by fire in a matter of minutes. Likewise, the exemplary scenery that attracted homeowners to the setting can be altered, often because of the inadvertent action of the homeowner.

You Can Help

Though people can never fully protect their homes and adjacent wildlands against wildfires, you can take steps to reduce the risk. For example:

  • Remove combustible vegetation from the vicinity of any structure. Thin out continuous tree and brush cover and remove dead limbs, fallen trees, leaves, twigs and evergreen tree cones within 30 feet of the structure to create a “safety zone of low fuel density all around the home” (NFPA). Likewise, prune trees branches to 10 feet above the ground and remove leaves and twigs from beneath trees, in the yard, on roofs, patios and landscaped shrubs.
  • Limit the number and density of landscaped vegetation and do not use highly flammable landscaping near structures. Maintain a greenbelt or noncombustible zone around the home; avoid using bark or wood chip mulch in the safety zone.
  • Stack firewood uphill at least 15 feet from a house. Fire risks increase when wooden decks, patios and woodpiles are placed close to structures or when flammable materials are stored near structures.
  • Be aware that roofs and walls made of untreated flammable materials such as wood shanks and shingles pose a significant fire threat. Wind-carried embers or the intense heat from a nearby fire can ignite such fuel sources. Fire does not need to “burn over” a structure for it to catch fire.
  • Clean roof and gutters. Remove pine needles and leaves to eliminate fuel sources.
  • Prepare for water shortages. Lack of piped water to protect against fire is a major problem in wildland/urban interface settings. To protect a structure, develop an external water supply, such as a small pond, well or pool, for fighting fires. Publications such as Planning for Water Supply and Distribution in the Wildland/Urban Interface (see references in this section) provide valuable information for preparation of homes and protection systems in the event of wildland fire.
  • Choose home location wisely. Building structures in canyons and on slopes increases the chances that those homes will be destroyed by wildfire. Canyons and slopes serve to channel fires up in elevation, similar to the way chimneys channel fireplace emissions. When upland slopes and canyons are selected for home sites, downhill or lower elevation areas should be clear of excess fuel, to add an additional element of protection. If a home is on the crest of a steep hill, thin the fuel sources at least 100 feet below the crest.
  • Mow tall grass and keep it to a maximum height of two inches within the home safety zone. Avoid tall grass around driveways, areas susceptible to ignition by automobile exhaust systems.
  • Inspect and clean chimneys regularly. Equip chimneys for woodburning heating units with spark arresters.
  • Avoid all outdoor burning to decrease the likelihood of fire ignition near a home structure.
  • Prevent mishaps with outdoor cooking grills by carefully maintaining the grill and using caution during grill use.
  • Have the right tools. Equip home with smoke detectors. Keep these tools in good working order and store in an easily accessible area of the house.

Conflicts

To fight wildfires often requires setting a fire—a backfire to remove fuel from the path of a major, oncoming fire. To prevent fires, natural resource managers write objectives for and ignite prescribe burns (fires) to remove excess fuel from the ground without destroying the major vegetation. Conflicts arise when the prescribed burn area or the backfire is too near the homes in the wildland urban interface. Who will make the difficult decision about where and when to burn? How would you respond if your home was nearby? What if your entire vacation-home community had to be sacrificed to stop an advancing wildfire that could alter an extensive forest ecosystem? These are difficult questions to answer. How would you make the decision?

Lesson Activities

This activity is most important and relevant to students living in wildland urban interface areas and areas where wildland fire is a regular, familiar phenomenon.

During the presentation of a fire unit or a lesson on fire awareness, discuss the subject of wildland urban interface and fire to help students better understand the difficult questions which eventually will require controversial decisions. This discussion is more appropriate for students who have explored the other materials in this fire ecology unit. Firesafe Inside and Out, a 22 minute video may be shown. Order and provide each student a copy of How to Protect Your Home-Wildfire Strikes Home (see references).

More Information

To receive additional information on wildland/urban interface and fire, contact your local fire department or forestry agency or any of the following organizations:

National Association of State Foresters
444 N. Capitol Street,
NW Washington, DC 20001
(202) 624-5415

National Interagency Fire Center
3833 S. Development Ave.
Boise, ID 83705
(208) 387-5512

National Fire Protection Association
1 Batterymarch Park
P.O. Box 9101
Quincy, MA 02269-9101 USA
(617) 770-3000

National Park Service
Fire & Aviation Management
3833 S. Development Ave.
Boise, ID 83705
(208) 387-5200

USDA Forest Service Fire & Aviation Management
3833 S. Development Ave.
Boise, ID 83705
(208) 387-5100

References

Fire Control Division, Washington State Department of Natural Resources. (no date). Fire risk rating for homes [Brochure]. Lacey, WA: Author

National Fire Protection Association. (no date). Black Tiger fire case study [ Brochure]. Quincy, Massachusetts: Author

National Fire Protection Association. (no date). Planning for water supply and distribution in the wildland/urban interface [Brochure]. Quincy, Massachusetts: Author.

Northwest Fire Prevention Cooperatives. ( 1992, February). Firesafe inside and out northwest version [Video].

USDA Forest Service, USDI Bureau of Land Management and State Foresters. (no date). How to protect your home-Wildfire strikes home! [Brochure].

Glossary Terms

  • Backfire Fire set downwind along a fire break.
  • Prescribed Burns The planned application of fire to fuels, including logging debris, grasslands and/or understory vegetation, such as palmettos, with the intent to confine the fire to a predetermined area.
  • Safety Zone An area of low fuel density created around structures in the wildland/urban interface for protection against fire.
  • Wildland Urban Interface Areas where human communities are built in close proximity to flammable fuels found in wildlands.