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Forest FiresForest-Fires

  • Subject:
  • |
  • Grade(s): 9-12
  • |
  • Duration: Two class periods

Lesson Plan Sections


Students will understand the following:
1. The benefits and problems associated with fire.
2. The role that fire plays in maintaining healthy ecosystems.


Resources regarding national parks, fire, and environmental science from your school or local library. Suggested resources include the following:
Project Learning Tree, published by the American Forest Foundation
Environmental Science: Working with the Earth by G. Tyler Miller
The USDA Forest Service's Web site
The National Park Service's Web site
The index of state fish and wildlife agencies
Fire: The Story behind a Force of Nature by Jack De Golia
Introduction to Wildland Fire: Fire Management in the United States by Stephen J. Pyne
Fire by George R. Stewart
Yellowstone and the Fires of Change by George Wuerthner
Yellowstone Forest 1988, produced by Video Visions
Yellowstone in the Summer '88, produced for Travel Montana and Wyoming Travel Commission


1. Discuss the positive and negative power of fire. On the board or separate paper, create a Fire Power chart with two columns: "Harmful" and "Helpful." During the discussion, write the students' responses on your chart. Have students brainstorm ways that fire can be harmful, such as damaging homes, communities, and ecosystems and harming people. Then ask students to think about ways that fire can be beneficial. Students may suggest its value as an energy source for cooking, heating, and powering machines, its symbolic use in religious and political ceremonies, and so on. Explain that fire is necessary to the health of some ecosystems.
2. Introduce the concept of surface fire as a valuable and necessary part of forest or grassland ecosystems. Include the following facts:
  • A surface fire is one that primarily burns undergrowth and leaf litter.
  • Surface fires can prevent larger, more serious "crown fires" from occurring.
  • By burning forest litter, these fires release nutrients present in forest litter that would otherwise decompose very slowly.
  • Surface fires can also spur the germination of plants, especially conifers such as the giant sequoia, the lodgepole pine, and the jack pine. These trees' pinecones need to be exposed to extreme heat before they can be released from the cone itself and germinate.
  • Such fires help reduce the number of pathogens and insects.
  • Surface fires create or help to maintain habitat for animals such as deer, moose, elk, muskrat, woodcock, and quail by burning back or thinning sections of the forest.
  • Ecosystems such as prairies, savannas, chaparral, and jack pine forests are dependent on periodic fire to maintain themselves. Otherwise, these ecosystems would be taken over by trees.
  • Periodic fires can open up sections of the forest canopy, creating an opening for smaller plants that need lots of sunlight to grow; this stimulates diversity in the forest ecosystem.
3. Explain that surface fires often occur naturally when lightning strikes a forest and starts a fire in a forest or grassland. Recently, foresters and park officials have begun setting fires called "prescribed burns" to mimic these natural fires. Prescribed burns are done to counteract years of fire prevention policy, which called for all fires to be suppressed as quickly as possible. The policy of blanket fire suppression has not only disrupted plant succession patterns in the forest and limited the variety of habitat available to animals but also resulted in a tremendous buildup of forest underbrush and litter. Therefore, when these forests do catch on fire accidentally through human error, the fire is very destructive. Ironically, prescribed burns are a type of fire prevention. In addition, since 1972 park officials have adopted a policy of letting most lightning-caused fires burn themselves out, within reason. Fires that threaten human lives, buildings, private property, or wildlife are extinguished.
4. Next, ask students to hypothesize what three things must be present for fire to burn. Their answers should be as follows: a fuel (wood, coal, gas, or other fossil fuel; dry trees; dead trees; leaf litter; and dry grass), oxygen, and a heat or ignition source, such as a match or lightning. These three "elements" are often referred to as the "fire triangle."
5. Using what they've learned about the fire triangle, have students brainstorm ways of stopping a fire. (To extinguish a fire, you must remove or restrict one of the elements of the fire triangle. For example, remove the fuel source for the fire or remove the oxygen.)
6. Next, divide the class into two groups. Within one of those groups, have students work in smaller groups of two or three and create a public service poster, brochure, or television spot on the dangers of accidental forest fires. Encourage them to answer the following questions: What are the dangers posed by these unintentional fires? How many are set in a year? In what ways do such fires affect the ecosystem? What precautions should be taken to prevent these fires?
7. Within the second group, have students work in groups of two or three to create a poster, brochure, or television spot on the benefits of prescribed burns. Have them answer the following questions: How do prescribed burns alleviate future fire damage to forests? How often are prescribed fires set? How do foresters choose the areas where they plan to set fires? What time of year are they carried out? What safety precautions are taken? How do they keep the fire contained? How long does it take for new growth to appear?
8. Have each group of two or three present its work to the class.

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Adaptation for younger students:
Review with students the story of Bambi. Discuss some of the misconceptions about forest fires that a child might get after hearing that story. Ask them to write another children's story that would present the idea of forest fires in a more balanced light.

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Discussion Questions

1. Compare and contrast the differences between a forest fire caused by human accident and a prescribed burn.
2. Suppose you were a park official who wanted to carry out a prescribed burn in a forest. You need to inform the residents of a nearby town of your plans. How would you defend your choice of action? What safety issues would you need to inform the citizens about?
3. Not everyone agrees with the National Park Service's policy of letting all "naturally occurring" fires—such as those started by lightning—burn. What do you think? Debate the pros and cons of this policy.
4. Some people are concerned about the National Park Service's policy of trying to put out fires within the park, arguing that the amount of damage done to the ecosystems from heavy machinery and cutting trees down to create fire barriers creates more damage than the fire itself. They argue that the cost of fighting these fires often exceeds the cost of replacing the park buildings that might burn. What do you think? Should the Park Service actively fight such fires?
5. One of the major environmental issues facing us today is the strong possibility that our climate is warming due to the excess carbon dioxide that is being released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels and forests. This is commonly called the greenhouse effect. Does this environmental concern influence your opinion about prescribed burning or allowing lightning-caused fires to burn? Why or why not?
6. Another environmental issue related to forest fires is air pollution. For example, burning fossil fuels and wood products releases particulate matter into the atmosphere. This can impair the human respiratory system—especially for those with preexisting conditions such as asthma. Should this influence the policy of prescribed burning? Why or why not?
7. Discuss how weather conditions might affect the strength of a forest fire. How might weather conditions affect those fighting the fire?

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Have students write a persuasive piece on whether or not the Park Service should continue with its current fire management policy of tolerating "natural" fires and conducting prescribed burns. They should include at least three reasons for or against this policy before coming to their conclusion.

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Fire and the Life Cycle
Research a plant whose life cycle is dependent on fire. Examples could include the giant sequoia, the lodgepole pine, or the jack pine. Examine the plant's role in that particular ecosystem. Then design a storyboard illustrating the life cycle of this plant, the role that fire plays in helping it successfully complete the life cycle, and the plant's effect on the biotic and abiotic aspects of its ecosystem.

The Fire Triangle
Have students conduct further research into the fire triangle of fuel, heat, and oxygen by investigating some of the following questions: Why can't you light a match on the moon? Why won't a wet match light? Will fire burn on the surface of Mars? Why does gasoline allow fire to burn? What is required to allow fire to burn? How did Ohio's Cuyahoga River catch on fire in 1959 and 1969?

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Suggested Readings

Catching Fire: The Story of Firefighting
Gena K. Gorrell. Tundra Books, 1999.
Beginning with an explanation of what fire is and how it was used and feared by early humankind, this book presents the history of firefighting and firefighting equipment. There are sections on fires in buildings, in forests, and on mass transit vehicles. Readers can also learn how investigators use science and logic to determine the causes of fires.

Fire: Friend or Foe
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent. Clarion Books, 1998.
Fire plays a crucial role in many ecosystems. Wonderful photographs in this book illustrate the ways plants and animals adapt to fire and convey how even extremely destructive fires can be essential to maintaining nature's balance. It includes chapters on fighting wildfires and the Yellowstone fires of 1988.

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What is Fire?
The World Book tells us what fire is and explains the three conditions essential for starting and maintaining a fire. Do you know what they are?'s Earth Alert
What parts of the Earth are being threatened by fire right now? Turn to Discovery Online's "Earth Alert" and find out where the fires are burning.You can also locate other current natural disasters such as typhoons, earthquakes, and volcanoes.

Wildland Fire; Yellowstone National Park
This pictorial essay of the vast fires that burned nearly a quarter million acres of forest in Yellowstone National Park in 1988, explains how naturalist have come to appreciate the role of fire in the natural evolution of a healthy ecosystem.

United States Fire Administration's Kids Page
The United States Fire Administration helps prevent fires. They want everyone to be safe from fire, including you! The Kids Page is full of tips, activities and games that can help you and your family learn to be safe from fire.

Fire Safety Website
This fire safety website provides lots of activities to help parents and teachers involve their children in fire safety educational activities. Many useful related fire safety education links are available from this page.

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Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker    abiotic
Definition: Nonliving features, such as light and temperature.
Context: Abiotic measurements of water quality were taken once a year.

speaker    biotic
Definition: Of or having to do with living organisms.
Context: Students were surveying the biotic features of their nearby stream.

speaker    combustion
Definition: An act or instance of burning.
Context: The combustion of the spilt fuel created a nightmare for nearby residents.

speaker    fossil fuels
Definition: A fuel (as coal, oil, or natural gas) that is formed in the earth from plant or animal remains.
Context: The burning of fossil fuels is the major cause of rising carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere.

speaker    oxidation
Definition: The combination of a substance with oxygen.
Context: The oxidation of iron produces rust.

speaker    prescribed burn
Definition: The act of intentionally setting fire to an area in order to prevent more damaging fires.
Context: The park was closed because officials were conducting a prescribed burn.

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This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learningin Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: Life science
Understands how species depend on one another and on the environment for survival.
Knows how the interrelationships and interdependencies among organisms generate stable ecosystems that fluctuate around a state of rough equilibrium for hundreds or thousands of years (e.g., growth of a population is held in check by environmental factors such as depletion of food or nesting sites or increased loss due to larger numbers of predators or parasites).
Benchmark: Knows ways in which humans can modify ecosystems and cause irreversible effects (e.g., human population growth, technology, and consumption; human destruction of habitats through direct harvesting, pollution, and atmospheric changes).

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: Life science
Understands the cycling of matter and flow of energy through the living environment.
Knows that as matter and energy flow through different levels of organization in living systems and between living systems and the physical environment, chemical elements (e.g., carbon, nitrogen) are recombined in different ways.
Benchmark: Knows how the amount of life an environment can support is limited by the availability of matter and energy and the ability of the ecosystem to recycle materials.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: Physical Science
Understands energy types, sources, and conversions, and their relationship to heat and temperature.
Understands that chemical reactions either release or consume energy (i.e., some changes of atomic or molecular configuration require an input of energy; others release energy).

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Joyce Bailey, master science teacher and freelance writer.

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