I grew up in a family of educators, so our lives were ruled by the school calendar. My parents still work at the local school district, as does my husband, and the familiar blend of anxiety, excitement and wistfulness that comes with the approach of the first day of school is nearly as palpable as the summer wildfire smoke that is currently hanging over the valley. As the first day of school approaches I find myself reflecting on how we can effectively engage youth in our fire adapted communities work.

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The Watershed Center’s youth crew removes noxious weeds like Scotch broom as part of their stewardship work.

Why engage youth? Youth engagement offers change-makers the opportunity to influence the future by empowering and supporting young members of the community.

At the Watershed Center we just completed our annual summer camp program and our youth field crew is wrapping up their season at the end of the week. These summer programs offer our local youth adventure, employment and knowledge about the place they live, and are an invitation to explore their identity against the backdrop of their place.

The programs were developed in an effort to weave a sense of responsibility for each other and the place we share into the lives of the youth in our community. To those ends, we developed curriculum, worked to engage community volunteers and listened to the feedback the youth gave us. Over the years the programs have evolved, but they are still an essential effort as we work to develop a stewardship culture in the echo of our boom and bust history. In addition to the connection to our organization’s mission, we’ve found that youth engagement has brought together disparate factions in our town. Youth can help unify a community and spur them to action.

How is the FAC Network engaging youth? Several of the FAC Network hubs incorporated youth engagement activities in their work over the past year. Their efforts demonstrate a suite of approaches.

Youth Employment and On-the-Job Training

The Forest Guild engages youth in FAC education and action through their Youth Conservation Crew. This season, their crew included 55 rural youth from communities in WUI areas. As part of their training, the crews learned about FAC concepts and implemented fuels reduction projects including preparation for controlled burning. One of the tips the Guild offers to those developing on-the-job or worker training programs for youth, is to explicitly connect the concepts in training to the work in the field. This reinforces the information and helps students integrate the concepts.

Teacher Training and Curriculum Development

Teachers in Colorado were able to learn about fire ecology this spring in a program co-hosted by the Coalition for the Upper South Platte. The Fire Ecology Institute serves 4-12th grade teachers offering curriculum and training on “fire science, fire mitigation, fire suppression, fire ecology and forest restoration.” There are lots of good curriculum resources available online including Project Learning Tree.

Direct Outreach and Classroom Presentations

Both the Chestatee/Chattahoochee RC&D and the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District spent time in classrooms last school year. Their efforts focused on making presentations to students about the role of fire and fire safety, and sharing informational handouts for the student’s families. Outreach like this can take a significant amount of time, but direct connections with students can be made.

Special Projects and Mentoring

Last winter, the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition worked with a group of homeschool students in a mentoring role as the students developed a special project for a Lego contest. The student-driven project shared Firewise information in the form of a Lego-animated video. This approach to youth engagement facilitates youth-led projects.

In addition to the individual projects hubs have already undertaken, youth engagement has been identified as a theme Network participants are interested in exploring further. Some hubs have designed youth components for their coming year work plans, and we expect to learn more about effective approaches to youth engagement based on their experiences. As FAC practitioners, we need to consider how to empower and include youth as we all move forward into the “no-analog future” our children are inheriting.

This post if part one of a two part series on youth engagement in fire adapted communities. Check back next Tuesday for part two, where I’ll share ideas for effective service learning projects and tips for working with educators.

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