California's most destructive wildfire year on record was 2018, with devastating fires occurring in Northern California oak woodlands. From 2015 to 2017, six of California's 20 most deadly and destructive fires in history occurred in these areas. The communities living in oak woodlands, which had been mostly spared from previous wildfires, were largely unprepared.
To prepare Californians to live with wildfire, Kate Wilkin, former UC Cooperative Extension forestry/fire science and natural resources advisor, and UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center and Hopland Research and Extension Center community educators Alexandra Stefancich and Hannah Bird received a $100,000 Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Education grant.
In addition to delivering community workshops, the educators will offer online training for teachers this summer. The curriculum will be introduced by webinar on Tuesday, July 14, from 11 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. (PDT). Register online for this free webinar at https://bit.ly/firecurriculum.
“The goal of this project is to educate youth and adults about their natural ecosystems and how to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire,” Stefancich said.
Even before the current COVID-19 pandemic constrained activities, challenges arose: the federal government shutdown delayed the grant; a wildfire burned approximately two-thirds of the Hopland REC; Wilkin moved on from UCCE and Rebecca Ozeran, UCCE livestock and natural resources advisor, took over leading the wildfire education project.
Training kids, adults and communities
The team is educating children, adults and communities. Their three-pronged approach includes youth education for 500 middle school students and training for teachers; adult education through advanced training for California Naturalists; and community education by partnering with Fire Safe Councils in Butte, Mendocino and Yuba counties.
“One of the most exciting aspects of this grant has been the youth fire education component,” Bird said. “The grant has funded an adaptation of theUS Forest Service's FireWorks Curriculum – first modeled for Rocky Mountains forests – to the California oak woodland ecosystem. This hands-on, place-based science curriculum aims to provide students an in-depth understanding of fire science. In working on this curriculum, the team wants to highlight the importance of not only oak woodland fire science, but the cultural history associated with fire on these landscapes.”
The grant allowed the team to work with local representatives from the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians, Kashia Band of Pomo Indians, United Auburn Indian Community and the Nevada City Rancheria to develop lessons shaped by the cultural value of fire as a tool and the long relationship between people and fire in California.
While developing the lessons, the team realized the importance of trauma-informed educational practices.
“Just five years ago, we often talked about wildfire theoretically, but now every student I speak with has their own experience to share,” Bird said. “It is important to give time in the lessons for the trauma experienced by our youth, and to educate them and encourage a sense of agency. These lessons focus on the positive! We don't spend time on things that we cannot change. We learn crucial concepts of fire science and build on them to make our schools, families and communities more fire prepared.”
Feelings about fire
The team piloted the new curriculum with more than 150 middle school students in Redwood Valley and Ukiah, just before schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Trialing the curriculum with students was really valuable,” Bird said. “These students have seen their communities affected by wildfire and it brings up many emotions for them.”
Students were asked to share their thoughts around fire at the beginning of the lessons and again at the end of the lesson series. Feelings of fear were replaced with feeling prepared and confident.
Before the lessons, students' comments about fire included, “Scary because I live in the mountains and my house is there, it could burn down.”
After the lessons, their comments included, “I felt positive about this, I feel that I know what to do, I think everyone should know how to prepare for fire.”
Pomolita Middle School students made an action plan for their school to help improve school fire preparedness. Students had hoped to present their plans to school administrators, but school closures due to the coronavirus crisis have delayed the presentation.
“Most of what we found at Pomolita school was really positive – the students do have a few suggestions that they hoped to share with the school administration,” Bird said. “Students also made an emergency contact plan and planned what they would like to have in a go bag for themselves and for their pets.”
Community educator Stefancich added, “This curriculum, aimed at middle school students, is ideal for any educator hoping to provide their students with more insight about the role fire plays in the ecosystem and how they can prepare for its eventuality. Each lesson is set up for the lay educator to be able to teach, so even without advanced fire knowledge it will be easy to use.”
The team continues to adapt the FireWorks curriculum for oak woodlands and expects it to be available at the FireWorks site https://www.frames.gov/fireworks/curriculum/overview by the fall.