Fire is a huge part of the culture, landscape, and ecology of the Sierra Nevada. For years, Fire Ecology has been taught in many schools in Plumas Unified, both as a part of general science classes and specifically in Fire Science Courses. Since the adoption of Outdoor Core and Next Generation Science Standards, this fire focus has only increased. One very beneficial educational resource for teaching fire science was created by the Missoula Fire Science Laboratory of the US Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station. While many fire ecology principles are relevant in any area, there are forest-specific fire behavior and regional considerations.
In an effort to localize the curriculum, Rob Wade and Michele Jimenez-Holtz first began discussing the possibility of a collaboration back in 2013, with the Missoula Fire Science Laboratory in order to create a fire science curriculum specific to the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. This conversation was taken all the way to the national level of the Forest Service, which approved utilizing Fire Restoration Funds for the project. With the available Fire Funds, a partnership between the Missoula Fire Science Laboratory, Plumas Unified, and the US Forest Service Plumas National Forest was formed.
Rob Wade flew to Missoula to work with the Missoula team, along with Plumas National Forest Service employees, to help draft the first versions of the curriculum. This was then piloted in PUSD schools and presented to Plumas Unified teachers in various FireWorks workshops. These workshops garnered feedback and input from the teachers to help fine-tune the curriculum. The FireWorks Sierra Nevada curriculum was officially finalized in the spring of 2017. The curriculum is now available digitally, completely free and available for all to access. This gives not only teachers in Plumas County access to this Sierra Nevada specific Fire Science Curriculum but the entire state and country.
Ilana Abrahamson, Ecologist with Missoula Fire Sciences Lab shared, “This program offers exciting, hands-on activities for students to learn about Sierra Nevada ecosystems and the role of wildland fire. It resulted from a rewarding collaboration, and PUSD teachers provided valuable feedback about the activities and instruction. The result is a fun and robust program for educators and students to use throughout the Sierra Nevada.”
For Plumas Unified, the FireWorks curriculum is now utilized at every campus across the district. Each school site has a trunk of materials available that are necessary for all the FireWorks experiments and labs, including the tinker trees and matchstick forest exercises. Across grade levels, fire connections are incorporated into the Outdoor Core grade level focuses. For example, for the 5th-grade year of the bird, students study fire and feathers and for the 3rd-grade year of the mammals, students study fur and fire. Each grade level studies how fire affects their specific animal’s habitat and behavior, making larger connections with fire and life science principles. In third grade, junior high and high school, Fire Science is also studied not just as a life science but as a physical science.
The Sierra Nevada FireWorks curriculum and materials are especially helpful for teachers without a fire science background. It gives them everything they need, complete with experiments, materials, relevant case studies, and research-backed curriculum that is simple to use and easily accessible. The partnership also brings US Forest Service Plumas National Forest employees to the school campuses to connect with the students and demonstrate various lessons.
Melissa Groh, the third grade teacher at Quincy Elementary School, explained that after discussing, reading, and writing about Sierra Nevada mountains, forests, and wildland fires, she invited ecologist Michelle Coppoletta and silviculturist Kristen Winford from the USFS Plumas National Forest into her classroom to further her students’ learning about the fire triangle. She shared, “Each student from both classes made a fire triangle and explored the three things a fire needs--fuel, oxygen, and a heat source. They are all working hard to increase their knowledge and understanding of how fires burn and why they go out, as well as explore the benefits and consequences of fire on ecosystems and forest communities.”
After in-class lessons, Groh invited Martin Senter, a Fuels Battalion Chief with the USFS, to QES to demonstrate how wildland fires spread using the Matchstick Forest experiment in the Fireworks Curriculum. Senter was joined by Fire Engine Operator Colin Shafer, and his assistant Fire Engine Operator, who showed the students a USFS wildland fire engine and acquainted them with various tools and functions of the engine.
During their school visit, the students hypothesized and tested how slope would affect the burn speed of various matchstick forest arrangements. They also discussed surface, aerial, and ladder fuels, along with the effect of wind on the spread of fire.
Groh shared, “This is turning into a great partnership with our local USFS personnel to help 3rd-grade students at QES increase their understanding of our own Plumas National Forest. Topics they are learning about throughout the year include wildland fire fuels, the changing plants and animals in our backyard ecosystem, fire as a natural process in the ecosystem, plant and animal survival and reproduction after fires, and human influence on the fire-dependent ecosystems.”
To learn more and download the curriculum, visit https://www.frames.gov/partner-sites/fireworks/curriculum/sierra-nevada/