CSTA Classroom Science

Resources for Teaching About Forest Fires and Climate Change

By Douglas Bevington

The topic of wildfires presents a peculiar challenge for teachers examining anthropogenic climate change in our state. Forest fires are now frequently used to depict the effects of climate change. However, as I discussed in my essay “Backfire: How Misinformation about Wildfire Harms Climate Activism,” an emphasis on negative depictions of forest fires can lead to misunderstanding about forest ecology and to policies that are actually detrimental to carbon sequestration.

Fortunately, there is a new series of short videos called “Dotty’s Best Kept Secrets” that can be a useful resource for teachers seeking to provide a more complete understanding of this topic. In contrast to Smokey Bear’s fire prevention messaging, these videos feature a talking owl named Dotty who guides the viewer through the ecological role of forest fires. There are six 2-minute episodes exploring topics such as “Climate Change & Fire.” 

Beyond the videos, here are some key points and resources that can help teachers to avoid misunderstandings about forest fires when exploring climate change and fire:

More Fire Vs. Too Much Fire: A key challenge when discussing climate change and forest fires is that, while global warming is contributing to increases in wildfire amount in recent decades, these increases are occurring within the context of a larger pattern of anthropogenic fire suppression that caused an unprecedented decline in the total amount of wildfire in the US during the 20th century.  While the amount of wildfire occurring now is more than what occurred in the latter part of the 20th century, our forests are still experiencing far less fire than occurred prior to intensive fire suppression. Teachers examining fire and climate change should be careful that discussions of how wildfire amount is currently increasing do not lead to the misimpression that our forests now have too much fire. A useful resource is the National Interagency Fire Center’s annual fire tally, where students can see that while the US experienced almost 9 million acres of fire last year, more than 52 million acres burned in 1930.

Beyond “Bad” Fire: Teachers discussing climate change and wildfire should also be cautious about messaging that presents fire as bad for forests. For decades, the Smokey Bear campaign left the impression that all forest fires were bad. More recently, the Forest Service pivoted to a message that presents some fires as “good” if they are small and do not cause notable tree mortality (i.e., low-severity), whereas larger fires that cause significant tree mortality (i.e., high-severity) are still portrayed as “bad” and as a problematic aberration to be prevented. However, this messaging overlooks a growing body of scientific research showing that intense wildfires are nothing new; most western forests evolved with a mixture of low-, medium-, and high-severity fire (i.e., mixed-severity fire), and the patches of high-severity within a fire create vibrant wildlife habitat. (This scientific literature is compiled in Nature’s Phoenix, as discussed below.) These findings offer an exciting opportunity for classrooms to learn about the abundant life in post-fire forests. For example, trees killed by fire become “snags” that are homes and food sources for birds and insects, while the temporary proliferation of shrubs after fires provide food and shelter for deer, bears, and small mammals. Scientists at the Wild Nature Institute created a helpful compilation of videos, scientific studies, and other information about the ecological benefits of mixed-severity fires. And younger students may enjoy The Charcoal Forest: How Fire Helps Animals and Plants, which uses a “Where’s Waldo” approach to explore the variety of life found after fires.

Fire Safety and Homes
While wildfire belongs in forests, it can be dangerous when fire comes into our communities. Due in part to climate change, today’s schoolchildren are growing up in a world with more wildfire than what their parents experienced, and many of them are living in homes that were built when wildfire was less of a consideration. The good news is that there are practical steps that can help keep homes safe in communities built next to forests and other fire-dependent ecosystems. The most effective steps involve modifying some features of the house and the vegetation within 100 feet of it, as explained in resources from the California Fire Safe Council. Learning about these steps and assessing the extent to which they have been implemented in local communities can give students a tangible way to address safety concerns about wildfire.

Additional Resources:
A recent article from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology titled “Old Flames: The Tangled History of Forest Fires, Wildlife, and People” combines interviews with scientists on the frontlines of research on fire ecology and fire safety. It provides an excellent overview for teachers and older students. Similar themes are also addressed in a recent report assembled by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, titled “A New Direction for California Wildfire Policy: Working from the Home Outward.” For this report, we invited six fire experts to prepare concise 2-page fact sheets on key facets of this issue. In addition to sections on home fire safety and common myths about forest fires, there are also sections on the carbon emission aspects of fire and fire-related policies, the role of firefighters in a changing climate, and the differences regarding fire issues in chaparral compared to forests. (The latter topic is particularly germane for the many communities in Southern California that are built near fire-dependent chaparral ecosystems.) And for a deeper dive into fire issues, much of the recent scientific literature is compiled in The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix, which is co-authored by 27 scientists and fire experts.

A recurrent theme in the recent research is that because forests provide natural carbon sequestration, they are a key part of a solution to the climate crisis, and that forest health depends on mixed-severity fire as an essential ecosystem process. For these reasons, it is worthwhile for teachers to incorporate the latest science on the ecological role of mixed-severity fire into discussions of climate change and forest fires.

Douglas Bevington is the Forest Program Director for the Environment Now foundation.



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