Exploring Fire Science

One of the most exciting components of working with the Forest Service last week was the opportunity to take part in fire science activities.  Through hands-on demonstrations and discussions led by the Forest Service employees, we were able to see first hand how wild land fires effect our land and even how fire fighters use fire as tool to protect our homes and property.

Fire Science

Fire science is the study of fire protection, the nature of fires, and firefighting techniques. Wildfires, industrial fires, and even controlled fires that go awry all fall under the umbrella of fire science and it provides worthwhile information on how to confine, control, and extinguish the flames.

As a part of our forest ecology lessons, the Forest Service led a discussion on fire science – including fire safety, fire fighting tools, prescribed burns, and defensible space.

fire science

The Forest Service has managed wild land fire for more than 100 years. But how they do it – why, when, and where they do it – has changed. For decades, the forest service has fought fire. First with hand tools and strong backs, then with aircraft and engines, they engaged fire in the wildlands and put it out. They became good at it, among the best in the world.

Science has changed the way we think about wild land fire and the way we manage it. We now know that wild land fire is an essential, natural process. Land management agencies are committed to a balanced fire program that will reduce risks and realize benefits of fire. They still fight it, especially to protect communities and the resources people need—but they also use it to make forests and grasslands healthier and to protect communities and natural resources.

firescience

The most impressive component of the lesson was the four burn stations whereby the kids played the role of fire marshals (equipped with safety glasses and a water bottle to extinguish the fire).  At each station, a Forest Service employee had set up different models of forest stands with matches representing trees (flat ground with a fire break, unmanaged forest stand on a slope, forest stand on a slope with selective thinning, etc.).  He then lit one match and we observed how the different factors (stage of succession, density, slope, wind, etc.) affected the intensity and speed of the fire.

Forest Service Resources

I encourage you to reach out to your local Forest Service office to inquire about what programs they have available in your area.  In addition to Junior Ranger programs (Forest Ranger, Snow Ranger, etc.) and interpretive services, they provide a wealth of other services.

The Forest Service has been providing ranger talks, summer field work experiences, and educational programs such as Smokey Bear and Woodsy Owl for many years. One of the newer programs they have developed is the Natural Inquirer, a science journal wherein scientists share their research specifically with middle school students.

The Forest Service has also developed a great website specifically for elementary and middle level students called Nature Watch. Our 190 million acres of National Forest Lands offer thousands of Nature Watch Viewing Sites across the country.  This website serves to connect young learners with these nature viewing and service learning opportunities.  Engaging in nature watching activities leads to greater personal connection to the environment and the natural resources we all share.

Field, Forest, & Stream: Forest Ecology

Our STEM Club focus the past few months has been ecology and we recently concluded our three part Field, Forest, & Stream study. As a part of the forest ecology focus, we partnered with the USDA Forest Service to hear first hand how a forester manages a forest and to get a chance to use the real tools of the trade.

I met with the Forest Service staff a few weeks prior to our outing to discuss my goals for the lesson and to visit a couple of different study sites.  We were thereby able to choose the site best suited for the lesson and for our comfort.  Of the two sites we visited, one had experienced a severe forest fire about 10 years prior and though it was a great visual for forest succession (one of the topics we have been covering), there was little to no shade cover as it was still in the shrub stage.  We thereby selected a site nestled in a forested area on the McCloud Arm of Shasta Lake.

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forest ecology

Forest Ecology

From an ecological perspective, the definition of a forest includes all the living components of an area, from the trees to the bacteria, and along with the non-living physical factors, from the soil type to the microclimates. One of the goals of the Forest Service is to provide science-based research, instruction, and extension that supports forest and wildlife conservation and management in an ecologically, economically, and socially sustainable fashion.

Tools of the Trade

Upon our arrival, the foresters described the area (noting that plants on the north side of the peninsula were significantly different than on the south side) and instructed the kids in how to determine our pace for 100 feet, information the kids would need to determine the height of the trees.  They then demonstrated the use of a variety of tools – increment borer (to determine age and growth factors), clinometer (to calculate the height), and D-tape (to calculate the diameter of the tree at DBH or diameter at breast height).

forest data

The kids were then divided into groups and walked out to one of four trees that had been previously marked.  Using the tools described, the kids took a variety of measurements and used the data to calculate the approximate value of the selected trees. [The data from two of the trees is shown in the table above.]  What I loved was that the foresters discussed that the tree may be more significant to the health of the overall ecosystem than the monetary value. They then pointed out a tree that had a large number of acorns stashed into the bark by acorn woodpeckers; this was just one of many additional factors that foresters use to manage a forest.

If you would like to undertake a more in-depth forest ecology study, I highly recommend the Tree Study F.I.E.L.D. Kit® by Forestry Suppliers.  The complete kit includes a Tree Finder illustrated manual to determine species, a tangent height gauge and 50m measuring tape to figure heights, and a diameter tape. With these tools, students can study annual growth rings by extracting a core sample with a professional model 8″ increment borer (with 10 core holder cards).

Students can also determine the volume of wood in a tree by using the tree scale stick. The kit also includes biodegradable roll flagging and stake wire flags to delineate research areas. Six plastic handheld magnifiers, six packs of six tree cookies, 12″ ruler, lesson plans correlated with National Science Education Standards, and carrying case box are also included.

Interested in undertaking this study yourself? Field, Forest, & Stream is part of the Life Logic: Ecology Explorations unit that I have developed for middle school students. What better way to learn about ecology than to get out there, collect data, and experience the physical factors that influence the animal and plant communities first hand.