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 Feelings

Students will learn positive and negative effects of wildland fire and begin to form their own positions toward or opinions about fire ecology. Students will be able to explain some possible positive and negative effects of wildfires.

Activities

Explain some possible positive and negative effects of wildfires.

Objectives

Students will learn positive and negative effects of wildland fire and will begin to form their own positions toward or options about fire ecology.

Who: Groups of four or five students.

Where: Classroom.

Estimated Time: One hour.

Materials:

  • butcher paper,
  • pencils,
  • markers,
  • crayons,

Subjects: Language Arts, Science

Fire has always been an important component in most ecosystems in North America. Over time, land management agencies have accepted fire as part of an ecosystem’s natural cycle. Previously, agencies labeled all fires as bad or detrimental to the health of wildlands. Land managers' efforts in the past, therefore, concentrated on suppressing all fires. Today, some wildland fires are allowed to burn, and some fires are ignited by trained fire specialists. Fires started by professionals are termed prescribed fires. Fires started by natural causes such as lightning or lava can be closely monitored to determine the best course of action. Both of these types of fire are managed for their benefit to the ecosystem.

Before a fire is set or allowed to burn, weather conditions are assessed for likelihood of the fire burning out of control. Many conditions can affect the size and intensity of a fire. Winds, soil and fuel moisture content, and slope of the land are a few factors that influence fire behavior. These factors are weighed carefully before decisions are made about whether to start a burn or allow an already burning fire to continue.

Wildland fires occur in and influence nearly all terrestrial ecosystems in North America. Fires can aid a plant community in returning to an earlier successional stage. Succession refers to the orderly gradual and continuous replacement of one plant or annual community by another. For example, grasslands are often maintained by periodic fires that burn woody plants. Without fire, grasses would eventually be shaded out by larger shrubs, and many of the shrubs would be shaded out by tree species in regions of the country with adequate rainfall for tree growth.

In forests, fires help diminish the threats of insect infestation and disease. By burning infected, dead or dying trees that harbor unwanted pests, fire reduces the likelihood that insect or disease related problems will occur. Burned standing and fallen logs provide food and shelter for animals such as millipedes, termites, ants and some bird species.

Effects of Fire

Fire can be a threat to humans. Wildfires burn timber that often would have been harvested for lumber or paper products. Fire can destroy homes and other structures. More and more, human communities are vulnerable to the effects of fire.

As human populations grow, city boundaries expand and neighborhoods develop into wildland areas, now called the wildland/urban interface. These areas have a greater chance of being impacted by fire because they contain large amounts of plant landscaping, fuel sources and structures that could sustain a fire. Most wildland fires, however, occur in sparsely populated areas and are managed to remain within park or forest boundaries. Large, damaging wildfires can be minimized with proper management, but they never will be eliminated.

Wildland fires can be beneficial. They reduce fuel loads, such as dead standing or fallen limbs, logs, leaves, pine needles, shrubs, excess grass and also living trees and shrubs. Such periodic burning reduces the intensity of each fire that occurs in subsequent years, consequently decreasing the impact of fire on fire tolerant plants and burrowing animals. If fuel loads are not reduced, the forest can become a fire hazard similar to a basement packed full of newspapers. When the fuel loads are reduced, undesired fires can be minimized.

When fires are allowed to burn, nutrients are released into the soil that would otherwise be held in leaf litter and undergrowth. Once these nutrients are released, grasses and other plants often spring to life and cover the ground in recently burned areas. Underground plant structures, such as roots, rhizomes and bulbs, also are stimulated to sprout if the fire does not burn extremely hot.

Some habitats rely on fire for their existence. The tallgrass prairies of the midwestern U.S., chaparral of California and jack pine forests in Michigan are examples of ecosystems that can be considered fire dependent ecosystems.

In the absence of fire, fire dependent ecosystems would be unable to reproduce or would be out competed by other species. For example, in prairie ecosystems, fire removes less fire tolerant non-native species of plants that out compete native prairie plants. Also, some pine cones will not open and release their seeds until they have been through a fire. These type of cones are called serotinous. Lodgepole pine and the giant sequoia trees have serotinous cones.

single deer in the lush forest

Fires can help enhance habitat for deer. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

Fire Feelings

Fires help provide large herbivores such as bison and deer enhanced grass species. The nutrients that are released after a fire provide the lush, green growth that is preferred by many grazing animals. Some species, such as the Kirtland’s warbler, favor young jack pines for nesting. Periodic burning is required to kill larger jack pines and permit growth of young trees. Larger trees that are killed provide cavities for nesting birds, such as pileated woodpeckers and bluebirds.

As fire burns across an area, not everything is impacted. Wildland fires create a mosaic pattern, often leaving some parts of the burn zone untouched. Inside the fire perimeter, some areas are completely burned, other areas have various levels of impact and some areas are completely untouched. This mosaic pattern provides for a diversity of vegetative regrowth and, in turn, a diversity of animal life. This biological diversity (the sum total of all living organisms and their interactions) is most important for a healthy ecosystem.

People have many different attitudes toward fire. Why would some individuals think wildland fires are harmful or bad? Why would others view wildland fire as OK or good?

Review the background information with the class. Discuss why some people view fire as a positive force and why others view it as bad. Assign each group a role to play.

  • Park/forest manager, “Ms. Oak”
  • Owner of a home adjacent to the fire area, “Mr. Shingle”
  • Elk, deer or other grazing animal, “Sir Elk”
  • Timber company that wants to harvest the lumber from the area that is burning, “Mrs. Paper”
  • Termites, millipedes and other critters who live in and eat dead wood, “Mr. and Ms. Leggs”
  • Other characters added by students

How would each of these individuals feel about a fire in their area? Would they feel differently if it was a lightning-caused or human-caused fire? Divide the class into groups of four or five students. Allow the groups a few minutes to discuss how their characters may feel about wildland fires. Ask each group to share with the other groups what its character(s) might feel and say about a wildland fire. Discuss the commonalties and differences between the groups' feelings. Ask each group to list some positive and negative feelings it has about wildland fire. Address how education about fire management may influence some people’s opinions about wildland fire.

Extensions

Have each group design a poster to support the opinion of the character it portrayed in the role play.

Glossary Terms

  • Biological Diversity The sum total of all living organisms and the interaction thereof.
  • Ecosystem An area in which energy, nutrients, water, and other biological and geological influences, including all living organisms, work together and influence one another.
  • Fire Dependent Ecosystems Plants or plant communities that rely on fire as one mechanism to create the optimal situation for their survival.
  • Fuel Load The amount of combustible material (living and dead plants and trees) that is found in an area.
  • Habitat An area that supplies the needs of a population of animals or plants living there.
  • Prescribed Fire The planned application of fire to fuels, including logging debris, grasslands and/or understory vegetation, such as palmettos, in order to meet outlined resource management objectives.
  • Wildland Fire A fire with an unplanned ignition, such as those started by lightning.
  • Serotinous A pine cone or other seed case that requires heat from a fire to open and release the seed.
  • Succession The gradual replacement of one plant and animal community by another, as in the change from an open field to a mature forest.