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 Field Trip

Take students on a field trip to observe a prescribed fire. Students will learn why, how and when prescribed fires occur on tallgrass prairies. Witness a prescribed fire. Take photos and create a written documentation of the event.

Activities

Witness a prescribed fire. Take photos and create a written documentation of the event.

Objectives

Students will learn why, how and when prescribed fires occur on tallgrass prairies.

Who: Groups of 15 students per adult supervisor.

Where: Prescribed burn at a tallgrass prairie conducted by a natural resource management agency.

Estimated Time: Day field trip.

Materials:

  • Camera,
  • pens,
  • pencils,
  • paper,
  • field/hiking clothes.

Subjects: Physical Science, Biological Science, Social Science.

horizontal shot of tall prarie wheat with a line of fire acoress the field

A fire in tallgrass prairie can be a very impressive sight.

Fire on the Prairie

No wildland fire is more visually stimulating than one that takes place on a tallgrass prairie. Prairie fires are a natural occurrence and essential to maintenance of the ecosystem. Most prairie ecosystems in the eastern and central U.S., where tallgrass prairies are found, would not exist without fire.

Though tallgrass prairies are one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America, the extent of the ecosystem’s diversity is not always visible to the casual observer.

Threatened and endangered insects, including numerous moth and butterfly species, inhabit prairies and depend on the ecosystem’s ecological makeup for survival. Tallgrass prairies frequently are found in association with wetlands. The wetlands could be sensitive and endangered bogs or fens. Fire is important to these prairie bogs and fens. Random fires ignited by lightning and management-ignited prescribed fires prevent unwanted vegetation from competing with rare prairie plants and prohibit the area from following a natural succession into wooded growth. Fire also encourages microbial activity (the activity of microscopic organisms that are responsible for the decay of dead materials). This activity increases the level of soil nutrients that plants require for growth. In addition, fire stimulates germination of many prairie plant seeds.

While encroachment of woody plant growth threatens to disturb the natural diversity of tallgrass prairies, succession is not the main threat to prairie ecosystems and wetlands. Human encroachment poses the greatest danger. Encroachment in this sense means that human development is located so close to a prairie that prescribed burns are difficult to carry out because of the potential risk to homes and other structures.

Often, instead of seeing a rare tallgrass prairie or a prairie fen, many people see fields that have no value other than for agricultural or land development purposes. Learning about prairies and the ecosystem’s value will help future generations to:

  • Know how to identify and protect these fragile areas and
  • Understand that fire is one technique used by natural resource managers to protect and foster prairie growth.

Ingredients for a Prescribed Fire

A management ignited prescribed fire (also called a prescribed or controlled burn) is a calculated and carefully planned event. Fire managers construct a fire plan that considers elements such as wind conditions, weather, season, humidity, dampness, and quantity and availability of fuel (natural buildup of leaf litter and woody growth). As part of the plan, fire managers determine how hot the fire will burn and in what direction the blaze will travel.

Using that information, managers carefully station each member of the fire crew so that the fire site is well managed and the crew is safe. A safe fire plan should include precautions to prevent the fire from becoming an uncontrolled wildfire. In addition, a fire plan must outline emergency procedures to handle an uncontrolled fire, should it become necessary. At a meeting prior to the prescribed burn, the fire manager outlines the details of the fire plan so that all crew members know their role in this concerted effort. In addition, all supplies are inventoried and checked for proper operation.

Getting Ready for Prescribed Burns

The fire crew is well-trained and well-equipped. Training includes practice of fire suppression, administration of the fire and education about the nature and behavior of fire. Fire crews wear Nomex clothing, a bright yellow fire-resistant material, for protection and so that team members are easily seen. The crews' outfit also includes a hard hat, goggles and a mask for protection. Feet and hands, a fire crew member’s most vulnerable parts, are outfitted in fire -resistant gloves and boots.

Inviting the local fire department to the prescribed burn can be both a security measure and an educational mechanism with which the community can learn about the benefits of management-ignited prescribed fires.

Prescribed Burn

In preparation of the fire plan, fire managers carefully study the site to minimize the risk of fire escaping from the target (planned burn) area. One way managers decrease the risk is by constructing a barrier around the prescribed burn site. Natural firebreaks such as roads, ditches, water or other physical features devoid of natural fuel are the best barriers. Most often, however, a firebreak must be built ahead of time to burn away materials that would fuel a wildfire. Occasionally, mowing or “wetting down” an area will prevent fire from burning outside the prescribed area.

On the day of the prescribed burn, the fire crew considers all environmental elements, the most important being wind speed and wind direction. Wind determines where the fire will be ignited and in which direction it will burn (the fire plan includes all possibilities). If conditions are not appropriate, the burn is delayed.

Fire crews light the prescribed fire with a drip torch, a can of fuel with a flame-carrying torch head at the spout. When the drip torch is tilted, fuel squirts through the top and creates a stream of flames that lands where the drip torch is pointed.

The fire manager or crew leader usually determines where the fire should be placed and operates the drip torch.

Types of Prescribed Burns

Two types of burns are used in a prescribed fire:

  • Backfire—Fire crews ignite a backfire downwind along the fire break and let the fire slowly burn toward the center of the site. Eventually the backfire meets the headfire.
  • Headfires are set so that the wind fuels the fire and carries it toward the backfire. Most fire crew members work to contain the fire to the sides of the site-an area termed the hand line.

Crews use rakes, flappers and backpack pumps filled with water to maintain the hand line. Other crew members located along the fire break and perimeter extinguish runaway flames. A nearby fire engine can be mobilized if the prescribed burn escalates into a wildfire or if the climate is dry and threatens to reignite the blaze.

After fire crews complete the prescribed burn and extinguish smoldering remains, the site looks charred and lifeless. Usually, in less than three days the basal (base) leaves of tallgrass prairie plants such as big bluestem, Indian grass switchgrass and prairie dropseed appear under the charred remains. In contrast, invaders or unwanted species such as Queen Ann’s lace, poison ivy, tree seedlings and shrubs, wild rose and others do not make such a successful resurgence after a fire.

Arrange a field trip to permit your students to view a prescribed burn with an agency that conducts prescribed burns as part of their natural resource management plans. Suggested agencies include: The Nature Conservancy, your state Department of Natural Resources, the Audubon Society, federal land management agencies or other park or land management agencies. Arrange transportation, safety training, a pre-trip orientation and a follow-up activity. At a minimum, students can participate in the field trip and engage in follow-up discussions. As part of a pre-trip activity, suggest that the fire manager visit the classroom and discuss prescribed burns.

If the activity takes place in the spring, a follow-up visit later in the season will show the students how a management-ignited prescribed fire stimulates prairie growth. Conduct a photo poster session, written essays and/or a poetry/prose workshop for the students. Place students into three groups and instruct them to illustrate with words, drawings or photos.

  • before the burn (the prairie before the burn and the preparation and materials for the burn),
  • the prescribed burn taking place and
  • the result after the burn and how the prairie plants respond.

Although this can be an exciting field experience, much attention should be paid to safety. Also, teachers must be prepared for a “no burn” decision based on unacceptable environmental conditions (e.g., high wind, high temperature) for prescribed burning.

Glossary Terms

  • Backfire: Fire set downwind along a fire break.
  • Bog: A poorly drained wet area containing floating water-soaked masses of plant life such as sedges, heaths and sphagnum (a form of peat moss).
  • Fen: An alkaline wetland community usually supplied with water from calcareous (calcium-rich) gravel deposits from glacial periods or from artesian springs.
  • Firebreaks: Natural or human-made lines or areas where fuels are limited or nonexistent.
  • Hand line: Fire line constructed with hand tools by natural resources managers and fire crews.
  • Headfire: A fire front spreading or ignited to spread with the gradient (downwind or upslope).
  • Succession: The gradual replacement of one plant and animal community by another, as in the change from an open field to a mature forest.