Editor’s note: Aaron Krikava is the prescribed burn program director for the Applegate Partnership and Watershed Council in Southern Oregon, and the Rogue Valley Prescribed Burn Association’s steering committee chair. Since 2022, Aaron has been a part of the planning team for the Rogue Basin TREX in the Rogue Basin FLN landscape. The Rogue Valley PBA receives FLN support and is a partner in the Oregon Fire Learning Network. In this blog, Aaron offers reflections from two educational programs offered in 2023 by the Applegate Partnership for local youth.

Last spring the Rogue Valley Prescribed Burn Association (PBA) had the opportunity to support two unique youth educational programs about wildland fire in collaboration with the Applegate Partnership and Watershed Council (Applegate Partnership) and the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative. Together we believe that reaching young students with knowledge of the importance of fire in our fire-dependent ecosystems is critical to shifting away from society’s narrow focus on fire suppression and the fear of fire. To this end we worked to spread concepts of good fire to young members of the community, covering topics from the ecology and beneficial use of fire on our landscape, to Indigenous burning practices, to career paths as fire professionals. 

Outdoor School 

Over nine weeks in the spring, the Applegate Partnership’s Outdoor School Program engaged 435 sixth graders from the Medford School District in a world of learning about natural resources. From local flora and fauna, to aquatics and geology, each group spent a week outdoors learning from nature’s classroom. 

Friday’s topic was fire. Before closing out the week with a campfire sing-along, students explored fire through a day of activities. They walked through a local park to discover native plants and shrubs and learn the many ways these native plants have adapted to frequent low-intensity fire—and learned that some plants even depend on fire as part of their life cycle.  Then I got to give them a tour of a fire engine while discussing the importance of fire. I talked about the many functions of controlled burns conducted during the mild parts of the year—as a tool to prevent catastrophic wildfires; to reduce heavy fuel loads that can lead to devastating wildfires in the hot dry times of the year; to benefit native plants by cycling nutrients, inducing fresh sprouts and seedling growth, while reducing non-native weeds; and to reintroduce the natural fire cycles on which our forests depend. I also share the surprising fact that fire, rather than water, is the primary tool used during fire suppression activities to contain wildfires within planned control lines.

Students got to check out a wildland fire engine while learning about the many beneficial uses of controlled burns.  Photo credit: Eva King/Applegate Partnership and Watershed Council.

The next stop on their learning tour was a study of the fire triangle—the way heat, fuel and oxygen work together to create combustion, and how they influence fire behavior on the landscape. Then, after all this talk of fire, the students where ready to explore how fire acts on the landscape. The students paired up to create their own matchstick “forests.” Building a model in a pan, students could vary the slope and topography, the density of trees (matches), and the amount of fine fuels (wood chips) on the surface to create representations of different landscapes. They then made hypotheses about how each landscape would burn, before the instructor sparked a match at a location of the students’ choosing. The results were conclusive—forests with widely spaced trees and low amounts of surface fuel survived the simulation, while forests of densely packed trees and high amounts of surface fuel burned at much higher severity, blackening most of the match stick trees. This activity really helped solidify the concepts and ideas introduced earlier in the day. All the students left with a better understanding of the importance of fire to our forests and how using fire as a land management tool can help reduce the severity of wildfires.

Building—and burning—model landscapes allowed the students to observe and consider the effects of slope, density, and understory fuels on fire spread and intensity. Photo credit: Eva King/Applegate Partnership and Watershed Council.

FireBright Curriculum

As part of Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative’s FireBright program, the Rogue Valley PBA helped introduce high school students to two aspects of good fire and fire use. One part of the program covered the long history of Indigenous burning and rich store of traditional ecological knowledge that has grown from that.  Our presentation began with acknowledging the multiple tribes native to southwestern Oregon, and sharing maps showing the areas where many different cultures historically lived. Students then explored the benefits for which Indigenous tribes use fire—crop and pest management, hunting, ceremony, clearing travel corridors, insect gathering, and fuel reduction. The Indigenous use of fire to protect homes and villages from wildfire is mirrored by the Rogue Valley PBA’s efforts to use controlled burning to protect homes and communities in our current society.  

Students then explored a variety of plants specimens on display, including hazelnut, camas, cattails and white oak, along with information on how tribes used fire to affect these species. After completing worksheets, the students expressed surprise at how essential fire use has been to Indigenous people.

In another part of the FireBright curriculum, we worked with representatives from the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and the Southwest District of the Oregon Department of Forestry to introduce students to some career paths for fire professionals. The students asked thoughtful questions as they learned about the similarities and differences between working for state and federal agencies, non-profits and private contractors. And they were excited about the idea of using fire as a land management tool in the fall through spring while working to suppress fire in the summer months. 

As we work to spread the importance of good fire, inspiring youth with the long history of Indigenous fire use and the importance of fire in our fire-dependent ecosystems is important to shifting our society’s collective fear of fire. Drawing young adults’ attention to career paths in the fire professions is critical to building the workforce needed to increase the application of beneficial fire for the health of our forests and the safety of our communities. The Rogue Valley Prescribed Burn Association is excited to continue working with its partners to introduce good fire to the next generation!


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