SCI 570 August 15, 2004

Mark Meyers

Kimberly Armitage





I. Subject/Topic:

Forest Fire Ecology will be taught at the 10th grade level to general biology students. It is expected that the class size would be 25-30. This lesson will help students understand that there are benefits that come from forest fires and that not all forest fires are bad. Students will reflect on the role fires and that 'fire is a part of the natural world, just like the wind, the rain and other natural forces. Fire is also an agent of change performing a variety of functions and producing a range of effects.' (Intro to Fire Ecology, 2004)

II. Rationale/Purpose: Why should students learn this material? What is the value to the student? What misconception about the goal conception is being addressed?

Misconception: Students believe that all forest fires results in negative consequences.

Goal Conception: Fires can be beneficial to an ecosystem.

Forest fires release nutrients such as carbon and nitrogen back into the atmosphere and the soil.

Many of our students have grown up with Walt Disney’s Bambi as a cultural icon of the beauty of nature. When students are struck with Bambi’s father in the perils of a forest fire (started by man), the preconceived notion that is planted into their minds is ‘fire is bad and it killed Bambi’s father’. This preconceived notion of ‘fires are bad’ stays with the student, long after the movie is over. They are then transplanted into your classroom, and horrified when you state that fires are good.

The media also does an excellent job of manifestating forest fires as a negative consequence. Due to the nature of how the story is brought to the public, most forest fire reports are considered negative. ‘Consume’, ‘destroy’, ‘devastating’, and ‘charred ruins’ are just some of the numerous terms used to display forest fires in a bad light. For example, "in reviewing the Yellowstone fires of 1988 it is clear that although the fire was spectacular and did damage structures, some of the information provided and some of the information reported was incorrect or sensationalized."

(Wildland Fire, 1988)

In 1944, The War Advising Counsel introduced a fire campaign to address precautions with fires. (Smokey’s Vault, para. 1) Then, in 1950 a black bear cub was rescued from a forest fire in New Mexico and Smokey the Bear became the icon of the USDA Forest Service. (Smokey’s Vault, para. 1) For 60 years "Smokey the Bear made people feel that fire was strictly the enemy of the forest. It killed animals destroyed trees and plants, caused soil erosion and fouled streams." ( Forgacs, 1998, para 4.).

Students need to understand that many forest fires, damaging that they may be, provide a useful resource to the environment by releasing trapped nutrients into the air and soil. It also begins the succession process, which in turn allows for new plants and organisms to populate the area. This type of secondary succession "provides food for deer, moose and elk, which eat low-lying shrubs, grasses and flowers — plants which disappear as the forest grows and prevents sunlight from reaching the ground." (Forgacs, 1998, para 11 ) According to associate Professor Mike Feller, if forest fires did not occur, there would be less of these opportunistic plants, which are found in areas that fires have burned. Without these plants, the animals wouldn’t be there either. (Forgacs, 1998, para. 12)

Furthermore, several forest communities rely on fires to propagate the species. In Michigan, most science teachers are familiar with Jack Pines. These coniferous trees need the heat from fire to release its seeds from the thick scales of the cone. Once opened, the seed can drop to the ground and germinate. The beautiful part about this fire process is " that heat…opens the scales of the cone and releases the seed onto the ground where fire has removed much of the existing vegetation, preparing the site for the new seedlings. Fire then serves to prepare a seedbed, reduce competition from other plants and release the jack pine seed." (Fire ecology, para. 16)

"One major effect of fire is a change in soil nutrients and soil temperature. Fire may be a chief factor in maintaining productivity in colder soils where the lack of nutrients is a major factor limiting plant growth. Fires release nitrogen and other nutrients from woody vegetation back into the soil in the form of mineral rich ash, which makes them readily available for new plant growth." (Fire ecology, para. 3 )

III. Learning Objectives:

Stand: LECIII.5

All students will explain how parts of an ecosystem are related and how they interact; explain how energy is distributed to living things in an ecosystem; investigate and explain how communities of living things change over a period of time; describe how materials cycle through an ecosystem and are reused in the environment; analyze how humans and the environment interact.

(Michigan Curriculum Framework Science Benchmarks, 2004)

Benchmark 2: Explain how energy flows through familiar ecosystems. (Michigan Curriculum Framework Science Benchmarks, 2004)

Students will have prior knowledge regarding food chains and webs. Using this knowledge, they will then be able to apply these cycles to the nutrients that cycle throughout the ecosystem.

Benchmark 3: Describe general factors regulating population size in ecosystem. (Michigan Curriculum Framework Science Benchmarks, 2004)

Students will apply their newly acquired knowledge of forest fires to habitat loss as a means to regulating organisms.

Benchmark 4: Describe how carbon and soil nutrients cycle through selected ecosystems. (Michigan Curriculum Framework Science Benchmarks, 2004)

Using the idea that fires release nutrients trapped in organic vegetation, students will explain that nutrients will cycle back into the atmosphere and the soil to be used again.

IV. Content:

IV. Content: Outline form ...Detail the central points, questions and skills that will be emphasized.

    1. Discussion- attitudes about forest fires. (previous knowledge or experiences)
      1. Media Article from Yosemite fire in 1988
      2. Smokey the Bear discussion
      3. "Bambi"

B. Negative Aspects of Fires (Reflection)

a. Burned homes and buildings

b. Injured or killed animals

c. The forest is gone

d. Increases Erosion

C. Positive Aspects of Fires (Reflection)

a. Cycling of nutrients back into the soil

    1. N, P, and K role in stimulating plant growth

ii. A fires role in releasing these elements (ash)

b. Releasing Seeds — Life Cycle

c. Creating a species rich area

d. Reduces the amount of combustible fuel on the


D. Research and debate for or against forest fires

    1. Students divided into debate teams
    2. Students research arguments for or against their position

c. Students debate

V. Strategies and Activities:

Prior t o Instructional Sequence:

  1. Group discussion on the fire at Yosemite
  2. Smokey the Bear - discussion
  3. The "Bambi factor" - discussion
  4. Media’s role in forest fires — discussion

5. Fire Cycle Worksheet - discussion


This activity has been adapted from

for the explicit use in our classroom.

Students will understand the following:

1. The benefits and problems associated with fire.

2. The role that fire plays in maintaining healthy ecosystems.


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. 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. Explain that fire is necessary to the health of 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


- Surface fires can prevent larger, more serious "crown fires" from


- 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


- 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 to create public service posters, brochures, or television spots 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.


Vocabulary that may be of use for students:


Nonliving features, such as light and temperature.


Abiotic measurements of water quality were taken once a year.


Of or having to do with living organisms.


Students were surveying the biotic features of their nearby stream.


An act or instance of burning.


The combustion of the spilt fuel created a nightmare for nearby residents.

fossil fuels

A fuel (as coal, oil, or natural gas) that is formed in the earth from plant or animal remains.


The burning of fossil fuels is the major cause of rising carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere.


The combination of a substance with oxygen.


The oxidation of iron produces rust.

prescribed burn

The act of intentionally setting fire to an area in order to prevent more damaging fires.


The park was closed because officials were conducting a prescribed burn.


Wrap Up/Conclusion:

This activity opens the students’ eyes to both the beneficial aspects of fires as well as the consequences associated with it. This will allow for a deeper unified understanding of forest fires and the contribution to ecosystems but also that fire prevention/safety can save lives and homes.


(adapted from

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 (in writing) 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?


VI. Materials:


Resources regarding national parks, fire, and environmental science can be obtained from your school or local library. Suggested resources include the following:

  1. Video cameras (library) and tapes for students who wish to produce a commercial.
  2. Paper, markers, pencils, pens,

3. The USDA Forest Service's Web site at

4. The National Park Service's Web site at

5. The index of state fish and wildlife agencies at



VII. Plans for Individual Differences:

The activity allows for numerous learning styles of the students. The posters and brochures will engage students with a need for written expression, while the creation of a television commercial would address the needs of the kinesthetic/tactile learner.

When students have control over how they will learn the material, they feel an ownership. This type of ownership may help to more thoroughly engage a student with the lesson.

VIII. Evaluation:

The following activities (also adapted from will give the teacher an evaluation strategy. How the students answer the following scenarios will provide the teacher with the information regarding the misconception. If the students still see fires as bad as a whole even after the activity and independent time on one of the following questions, reteaching will be necessary.

Park Services

Should Park Services continue with its current fire management policy of tolerating "natural" fires and conducting prescribed burns? Include at least three reasons supporting your thoughts on the policy before coming to a conclusion.


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.



IX. References

Cohen, J. (n.d.). The impact of fire on ecosystems. retrieved Aug

05, 2004, from

(n.d.). Fire ecology: resource management education - reporting

the blazes. retrieved Aug 05, 2004, from Wildland Fire Web


(n.d.). Forest fires. retrieved Aug 05, 2004, from Discovery Web site:

Forgacs, S. (1998). Forest fires not bad, says forest researcher.

retrieved Aug 5, 2004, from Forest Fires Web site:

(n.d.). Introduction to fire ecology. retrieved Aug 05, 2004, from

(2004). Michigan curriculum framework science benchmarks.

retrieved Aug 05, 2004, from MI BIG overview of Science

Content Standards Web site:

(n.d.). Smokey's vault. retrieved Aug 05, 2004, from

(Intro to Fire Ecology, 2004)





Fire Cycle Worksheet



From The Impact of Fire on Ecosystems. The University of Texas.