Teaching Fire with Fire: A Unique Approach to Community Outreach
Authors: Conrad Greaves, Talking Talons Youth Leadership
If your goals are to increase awareness about forest restoration and to advance FAC, schools can be a great place to start. Over the past few months, educators from Talking Talons Youth Leadership have been delivering a forest and fire program to middle and elementary school students across the Grants, Zuni and Gallup school districts in western New Mexico.
This program was created with funding from a Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program grant awarded to Cibola National Forest and in partnership with the Forest Stewards Guild. The award resulted in a collaborative group, the Zuni Mountains Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Project (Zuni CFLRP). Zuni CFLRP has advanced numerous thinning projects and controlled burns near local communities living in the wildland-urban interface.
Talking Talons Youth Leadership works with some of the students in these local communities. Our educators, Janine Sears and Susan King, are both retired science teachers and are well-versed in the delivery of a science-based curriculum. They designed the program to teach local youth about fire adapted ecosystems and FAC, while fostering interest and understanding of the Zuni CFLRP. The program discusses land management strategies in the Zuni Mountains, as well as the structure of Cibola National Forest and other agencies involved in the Zuni CFLRP.
We want students to remember their visit and then to go home and discuss what they learned with their friends and family. With that in mind, we included an unforgettable activity in the program, to spark the curiosity of others. The program, therefore, has an influence beyond the classroom and encourages community interest in the Zuni CFLRP. After all, it’s not every day that students get to light fires at school.
As fun (or potentially dangerous) as that sounds, the program’s focal activity encourages students to think about how to scientifically approach the problems associated with forest health and fire ecology. The activity, called “Bucket Brigade,” was originally published as part of Torri Derr’s Collaborative Forest Restoration Program Monitoring: Curriculum Background and Activities for Ecological Monitoring (see page 39). Essentially, it has students create model forest fires by combining heat, fuel and oxygen. They learn that these three components are the ingredients of the “fire triangle” and they study what happens when they manipulate each variable.
Students are given variations of fuel, ranging from green pine needles to charred sticks, to everything in between. The students team up and formulate the best strategy to burn their fuels. Then, they generate predictions about how they think their fuels will burn and put their hypotheses to the test. The burn phase of the experiment takes place outside with plenty of supervision, water buckets and fire extinguishers on hand.
When the experiment is over, the educators go over the results with the students, highlighting key points. For example, students learn that fuels placed too closely together don’t have enough oxygen to burn well, while fuels spaced too far apart can’t spread the flame to one another. The educators relate this concept back to fire ecology, explaining the relationship between tree density and forest health, revealing that forest thinning reduces fire threat.
Students also find that green fuels often burn very hot but are difficult to ignite due to moisture. Educators use this observation to explain the differences between surface fires and canopy fires. They emphasize the connection between the high heat of a canopy fire and how quickly it travels when compared to the lower heat of slow-burning surface fires. Students extrapolate how the lessons from their small-scale experiments transfer to the full-scale dynamics of a forest.
They clearly grasped why forests are now overcrowded as well as dry when we used the analogy of too many friends with straws in a Sonic drink.
– Susan King, Talking Talons Educator
The ability to communicate these fire ecology concepts to young students takes special talent. We are lucky to have educators with a passion for the environment and many years of experience with teaching science. It’s particularly important that these students understand the forest, as in many cases it surrounds their homes.
Currently, this program is still underway. So far, we have reached over 500 sixth grade students, from 23 different classrooms. However, we are hopeful that the reach of this program will extend far beyond the bounds of the classroom.
The mission statement of Talking Talons Youth Leadership is “to elevate youth and the community to become effective advocates and ethical stewards of themselves, wildlife, habitats and the environment.” As a result of this program, the youth and community near the Zuni CFLRP have a greater understanding of the collaborative’s significance and its role in advancing their communities’ fire adaptation. Our hope is that the lessons taught by our educators will resonate strongly with the youth, inspiring them to become active environmental leaders with a deep-seated passion for restoring and protecting their local forests.