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Online Education Resources for Wildfire Instruction -- Grades 4-12

by Donald P. Albert, Sam Houston State University
(use in conjunction with GITN #629, Fire in the Rockies)

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Wildfires pose a significant hazard during periods of drought throughout the country. They are especially dangerous to newly-settled habitations at the edge of large wilderness areas. But wildfires are also useful natural phenomena that regularly clear debris from forests and set the stage for new growth. This learning activity points teachers to an inclusive website with resources that can be used along with Neal Lineback's article "Fire in the Rockies" to produce a well-developed curriculum on wildfires, controlled burning, and firefighting.

Grade Level: 4-12

Time Frame: several class periods (in classroom or computer lab)


Students will examine the natural and man-made causes of wildfires and interpret maps detailing fire patterns.

National Geography Standards:
  • Standard 1, how to use maps and other geographic representations, tools, and technologies to acquire, process, and report information from a spatial perspective
  • Standard 7, the physical processes that shape the patterns of Earth's surface
  • Standard 14, how human activities modify the physical environment.

  • Firewise web site. Firewise is maintained by the National Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Program and is sponsored by eight national-level organizations including the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Department of Interior, Department of Agriculture and Forest Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Association of State Foresters, and the National Fire Protection Association. Its mission is to inform and educate the public on wildfires and precautions one can take to lessen the loss of life and property in what has been called the wildland/urban interface. Firewise also provides an address to receive a free copy of "An International Collection of Wildland-Urban Interface Resource Materials" by K.G. Hirsch, M.M. Pinedo, and J.M. Greenlee. One can also submit a request on-line to receive two free videos from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The titles of these videos are "Everyone's Responsibility: Fire Protection in the Wildland/Urban Interface" (1994) and "The Oakland/Berkeley Hills Fire: Fire in the Hills" (1993).

    Seven interactive activities include:
    • Home Rating Scale
    • Firewise Quiz
    • Making Your Home Firewise
    • Firewise Landscaping Multimedia Website
    • Peak Fire Seasons Maps
    • Fire Hazard Assessment in the Wildland/Urban Interface
    • Getting Firewise about Fuels

Getting Started

The menu heading, "Firewise for Educators" is the most useful for teachers and is explored in more detail here. Firewise for Educators includes two subheadings. Choose "on-line curricula" to access the four links described below.

  1. Fire in My Backyard
    This learning activity was produced by the National Park Service. Students are introduced to the idea of setting a backfire to remove fuel in the path of an advancing wildfire. Several questions are then posed to stimulate a discussion about the conflicts and difficult decisions that develop when backfires and prescribed burns are too close to homes. The following questions are posed in this activity:
    • Who will make the difficult decision about where and when to burn?
    • How would you respond if your home was nearby?
    • What if your entire vacation home community had to be sacrificed to stop an advancing wildfire that could alter an extensive forest ecosystem?
    It also reviews methods to increase safety zones to prevent fires from reaching a home.

  2. Fire Field Trip
    This teacher's guide can be used to accompany a field trip to view a prescribed burn. It suggests that the teacher contact one of a number of agencies using prescribed burning to arrange a field trip. Agencies like The Nature Conservancy, state departments of natural resources, the Audubon Society, and federal land management agencies should be approached about the possibility of viewing a prescribed burning. If possible, teachers could schedule a follow-up field trip to the burned area some months later to view changes in the landscape.

    During this lesson students are introduced to the anatomy of a prescribed burn. Such terms as firebreak, burned area, backfire, headfire, and igniter are introduced. Students are asked to use words, drawings, or photos to capture their impressions at one of three points in time--before, during, and after the fire. For example:
    • Before: describe the existing ecosystem or the activities that occur to prepare an area for a prescribed burn
    • During: describe the actual event and record their impressions about the fire advancing across a landscape
    • After: examine the charred landscape or even months later assess the regeneration of plants.

  3. FireWars/NOVA
    This NOVA episode is based on the exploits of an elite team of wildfire fighters named the Arrowhead Hotshots. NOVA is a documentary television program often shown on PBS television stations. Although the video can be purchased and viewed, the site and activities are designed to be self-contained. Filmed during the 2000 fire season, the documentary focuses on efforts to control a massive wildfire in Clear Creek, Idaho. A range of topics is explored here including an overview of the ecological importance of wildfires, highlights from the major wildfires of the 20th century, an examination of the methods, techniques, equipment, and strategies of wildfire control, the influence of weather on the frequency, speed and direction of wildfires, and a discussion of the various philosophies and policies related to wildfires and fire fighting.

    This site includes two lesson plans with printable activity sheets. These lessons identify the conditions necessary for combustion to occur (heat, fuel, and oxygen), and illustrate how slope influences fire behavior.

  4. Taking a Stand: Pros and Cons of Forest Fires
    WNET-TV, New York, has produced a series of on-line lesson plans about wildfires. The site includes three parts: an overview of the lesson, procedures for teachers, and a chart that helps students organize their research findings. These lesson plans require that each student maintain a journal of all his or her deliberations and findings. First students are asked to hypothesize which regions of the United State have a high or low risk for forest fires. They base their hypotheses on information using the Keetch-Byram Drought Index, a national weather map, and a fuel model map of the United States. Students check their hypotheses against data listed on the website of the National Interagency Fire Center. Finally, after marshalling the facts, each student sends a well-written e-mail to an appropriate state official stating his or her opinion about the use of fire to clear land.

First published August 2002
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