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 Adaptations

Design a plant or animal that would be adapted for wildland fire survival

Activities

Discuss plants' and animals' adaptive strategies to survive fire. Observe plants and animals in your local area. Design a plant or animal that is adapted for fire survival.

Objectives

Students will be more aware of how plants and animals adapt to wildland fire.

Who: Individual students.

Where: Classroom.

Estimated Time: One hour.

Materials:

  • Paper,
  • pencils,
  • crayons,
  • markers,
  • three-dimensional art supplies (if desired).

Subjects: Art, Language Arts, Science

To survive a fire, most plants have adaptive traits or abilities that allow them to reproduce or regenerate. Most animals will either flee the fire or, in the case of burrowing animals, move deeper underground. An adaptive trait is a behavior, physical feature or other characteristic that helps a plant or animal survive and make the most of its habitat. For example, the saguaro cactus, which inhabits the deserts of the southwestern U.S., can store water. This adaptation helps the cactus survive through long periods of drought.

All living things have some traits that are adaptations to disturbances and constraints of their environments. Disturbances include physical and biological disturbances, of which fire is one.

Nowhere to Run

Plants have a distinct disadvantage, compared to animals, in the face of fires. Plants are unable to run, fly, creep or crawl out of a fire’s path. Plants have adapted other methods to survive fires.

new baby pine tree growning through the recently burnt forest floor, next to giant pine cones

Table Mountain pine—Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.

Individual plants have adaptations to ensure their survival through a fire. To survive a fire, a plant must be able to insulate itself from the heat of the flames. Bark thickness is the most important factor determining fire resistance of trees. Ponderosa pine, longleaf pine, slash pine, loblolly pine and giant sequoia are examples of trees with thick bark that acts as insulation from forest fires.

Small woody plants and shrubs normally have thin bark. These plants use the soil as an insulating layer to protect themselves. Individual plants resist being killed in fires by producing new growth (shoots) from underground organs or roots.

Some plants protect their buds as an adaptive strategy to survive a fire. Buds can be protected by layers of succulent, nonflammable foliage. Longleaf pine exemplifies this adaptive strategy. The buds of the longleaf pine are protected by a thick cluster of needles. Some plants even protect their buds by locating them within the main stem and roots. A few popular tree species possess this trait.

Retention of seeds by plants and stimulation of seed dispersal by fire are other examples of fire-adaptive strategies. A number of pine species have pine cones that open only after a fire. These cones are said to be serotinous (pronounced sir-ot-in-ous). Jack pines have cones that are held closed by a resin that is sensitive to high temperatures. These cones will not open to release their seeds until the critical temperature is reached. Lodgepole pine cones (a western U.S. variety of tree) vary from serotinous to free-opening. When these trees grow in areas subject to frequent fires, the cones are serotinous. However, if this species grows in areas where fire is less frequent, the cones open and release their seeds more frequently without fire.

herd of bison out in the open field that was recently burnt by a wildland fire

Fire Effects on Wildlife

Environmental changes, such as those caused by fire, flooding and deforestation, determine the presence and abundance of animal species in a given area. Fire in the natural environment can have a profound effect on the wildlife of an area.

When people hear about a wildland fire, many of them ask, “Where do all the animals go?” When a fire occurs, the most important behavior for animals is escape and survival.

Wildlife species have developed different methods or strategies to escape fires. Animals such as deer, elk, bear and fox are accomplished runners and use this skill to escape the flames. Other animals not so adapted for running hide in underground burrows, in rock cliffs or other refuges. Rats, mice, moles, shrews, snakes, lizards and turtles burrow to escape fire.

Birds that have the ability to fly retreat to a safer area until the flames have passed. However, nestlings and chicks of wild turkeys and other birds may not be able to fly. Often these and other animals cannot escape the fire’s path. Their remains attract scavengers and predators, such as coyote, to recently burned areas.

After a fire, populations of organisms that inhabit the litter or humus layer (the top few inches of soil) often decrease. Some of the insects in the humus layer are considered undesirable because they damage timber stands. Sawflies, the red pinecone beetle and the maple leaf cutter are examples of nuisance pests whose numbers are reduced by fires.

While some insect populations decline as a result of fire, ants seem to thrive. Ant populations have been recorded as more numerous in burned areas than in unburned areas. An important species in prairies, ant populations increase after a prairie fire.

Plants and animals that have physiological and behavioral adaptations to survive in habitats frequented by fire live in fire communities. Today, people are beginning to recognize that fire is not always destructive. Fire is merely a means of change in ecosystems.

Review the background information with the students. Use plants and animals from your area as examples of species with adaptive strategies to survive fire. Ask each student to design a fictitious plant or animal that has adaptations for fire survival. Have each student draw the plant or animal and give it a name. Ask each child to share his or her feelings about wildland fire with the class plain how the animal or plant is adapted for a fire community.

Extensions

Have the students interview two adults to find out what the interviewees know about wildland fire. Students should ask the adults if they know of any plants or animals in their area that have adaptations for fire habitats.

Glossary Terms

new fern growning through the recently burnt forest floor

Fern regrowing after fire—Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

  • Adaptation An alteration in structure or function of a plant or animal that helps it change over the course of successive generations in order to be better suited to live in its environment.
  • Fire Community A plant or animal community that is adapted to live in a habitat that is frequented by fires.
  • Humus Layer Decomposed organic matter that is found in the top layer of soil.
  • Predators Animals that prey on other animals as a food source.
  • Scavengers Animals that feed on dead or dying animals or discarded materials from human societies.
  • Serotinous A pine cone or other seed case that requires heat from a fire to open and release the seed.