Firewise vegetation, including water-wise and native plants, were selected for the school.

Topic: Defensible space / Firewise Preparedness Resilience Type: Success Story / Lessons Learned

Making an Impact Through Hands-On Learning

Author: Ashley Lara, Jackson County Fire District 3

Okay, let’s get real. In today’s society, how am I supposed to gain any amount attention from children on the topic of wildfire? Where is the time–when you already have a full day jam packed with Grand Theft Auto, MTV and texting Jonny, the cutest boy in school? To add to the challenge, most parents work full-time and are completely maxed out. Who can blame them? I can think of five excuses right now that would prevent me from attending a two-hour presentation on this year’s wildfire season at the local fire department on a weekend (or really any day of the week). So what is a fire outreach professional to do?

As part of my new position as a Fire & Life Safety Specialist at Jackson County (Oregon) Fire District 3, I was tasked to create a district curriculum for grades K-8. I didn’t want to do the traditional classroom conversations I had seen (and done myself) 100 times before. Now, more than ever, I feel like our youth need to be outdoors in the fresh air, working with their hands and really connecting to the land around them. They need to be stimulated, and I am not talking about beating level 80 on Candy Crush Saga, I am talking about kids getting excited about what is around them; creating buy-in on projects and finding a love for the beauty they are surrounded by. Then maybe, just maybe, they would be inspired to go back home and encourage their parents and siblings to take action as well.

Now that I have inspired myself, what will get kids just as excited? Jackson County is number 1 in the state for wildfire activity. We are surrounded by an enormous amount of rural land that is bordered by mountains and dense forests. To make an impact, I need to bring something relevant that the students could bring back home and truly make a difference. Firewise is a project I am more than a little familiar with, but it is a new program for my area. Due to the simplicity and open platform, I thought this could be the perfect way to introduce an incredibly beneficial program into the district.

I started with reaching out to a school in White City, about two miles away from the district. I met with the normal suspects: teachers, groundskeepers, administrative assistants and a vice principle to go over some ideas for getting the kids involved in Firewise. I knew I needed to do something on the school grounds; it was much too expensive to bus students away from the area. After brainstorming, we decide to design a Firewise Learning Garden. The garden club students were selected and we worked with them to choose a location, design the landscape, remove sod and plant fire-resistant vegetation.

White City Elementary School. The sod has been removed; fine bark mulch and soil are to be installed next. (Photo Credit: Ashley Lara)

White City Elementary School. The sod has been removed; fine bark mulch and soil are to be installed next. (Photo Credit: Ashley Lara)

We selected a large grassy field for the project, more than big enough to create a pathway and to continue expansion over the next couple of year. This was not only exciting for me, but also the students. They were eager to plant and watch their flowers grow. I have never seen so many smiling faces race from their classroom doors to grab a shovel and begin removing large chunks for sod from our pathway. This was no easy task; the soil is clay-like and full of rocks. But that didn’t seem to set anyone back. In fact, students competed to see who could remove the biggest pieces.

By the second week of work, garden soil and fine bark mulch was placed in the designated pathways and planting rounds. Along the way, we talked about fire-resistant plant characteristics and types of dangerous vegetation they should keep away from their homes. I was shocked by how excited they were to go home and “assess “their homes for fire-prone vegetation and report back to me. I loved that they were excited about learning and even more excited to go home and teach their parents what they learned.

By the second week of work, garden soil and fine bark mulch was placed in the designated pathways and planting rounds. Along the way, we talked about fire-resistant plant characteristics and types of dangerous vegetation they should keep away from their homes. I was shocked by how excited they were to go home and “assess “their homes for fire-prone vegetation and report back to me. I loved that they were excited about learning and even more excited to go home and teach their parents what they learned. (Photo Credit: Ashley Lara)

Students working together to spread garden soil in planting rounds. (Photo: Ashely Lara)

By the end of the two weeks, the garden had been completed with over 20 students and a number of adults helping put the plants in the ground. The final touch was installing Firewise signs throughout the pathway. Each sign demonstrated a Firewise topic, including: Firewise planting, fire-prone planting and privacy-screening. Each sign has fun cartoon graphics, the Firewise website URL and a QR code leading back to the district’s FAC Facebook Page. Each year, the garden club will add to the pathway and continue their plantings and education.

With such great results from our pilot project, Firewise gardens will soon be installed at the majority of our district’s elementary schools. As part of a district strategic plan, it is my goal to have a week-long class with each elementary school and to conclude with the planting of a Firewise garden. It is a fun and fairly inexpensive way to get children engaged, excited and bought into this concept of living safer in wildfire country.

Since this project was completed, I have also created three Firewise gardens in our rural fire stations. These gardens are similar to those at the schools; however, I plan on making a “passport” for schools to tour the gardens. Over time, as they sign off each location, an engine company will come to their school to visit, eat lunch, or just hang out for a few hours.

It has been such a joy to see these projects through to completion. It has raised a lot of awareness in youth about wildfire, and it has also increased our awareness about Firewise and fire-safe practices among adults. I encourage everyone to think outside the box and find what works best for your audiences!

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