This past week, Jackson Campus AmeriCorps led groups of 5th graders from Victor and Driggs Elementary Schools in a fire ecology outreach program. We wanted them to understand the basic dynamics of forest fires and to have a good experience learning outside. For our Wednesday fieldtrip, we spent half of our day exploring Teton Canyon with our field groups and the other half learning from the Swan Valley Fire Crew in the trailhead parking lot. With 120 anxious students and beautiful weather, we were all set for a great day of fire and fun.

During field time, we played a forest succession game. Students all started out as sagebrush and moved up the succession stages to aspen and pine trees. Students realized at the end of the game that only a few of them remained as sage and aspen, and most were pines. They learned that the only way to continue the cycle was to have a forest fire so all could start again as sage brush. We also played a fire ecology game (similar to a game called ‘sardines’) where some students hide as fire. Then a small group of students who are beetles try to find a fire and hide with it so they can bore into the trees to lay eggs. The next group of students, the woodpeckers, tries to find the fire and beetles and hide with them so they can eat the beetle eggs. The last group of students, songbirds, tries to find and hide with a hidden group of fire, beetle, and woodpecker in order to build a nest in the hole that the woodpecker made. Through this activity, students learned that fire is helpful to animals, in addition to plants. Both games worked well to engage the students and to get them thinking about the dynamics of forest life after a fire.

Our time with the Fire Department was as informative and thrilling for us as it was for the students. The crew started us off explaining why forest fires are essential for our ecosystem and how their team ignites and controls them. After the introduction, the students were divided into two stations. One station was led by Danny and Scotty, two ground-based Fire Managers, as well as self-appointed “bros,” who discussed the daily routine and equipment of a Fire Manager on the ground. They brought their trucks equipped with all the cool tools and gadgets. From fire-proof clothing, to the fire shelter, to the drip torch, to the firing grenades, everyone’s faces lit up with awe. The other station was led by Bobette, a Helitack (or fire-fighting helicopter) pilot, who spoke on the role aircraft play in fire management. Bobette brought an equally impressive smorgasbord of instruments and tools, including her high-tech radio helmet and the heavy-duty cargo net, responsible for holding the water bladder below the chopper. Between all the dangerous doo-dahs and riveting information, we all wanted to be forest fire fighters.

While our field day with our students was a highlight of this project, perhaps the main thing we will take away is our own increased knowledge of fire ecology and its important role in this region. By brushing up on our own awareness, we were able to present meaningful and fun lessons to our students. Hopefully, they will take pride in their newfound knowledge of their home ecosystem and put it to good use as stewards or maybe even future fire fighters.