Note: Lana Cohen is a Report For America fellow covering the environment & natural resources for TMV & KZYX. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Lana’s work here or email [email protected]. Contact Cohen at LCohen@mendovoice.com. TMV maintains editorial control.
HOPLAND, 6/30/20 — The River Fire came from the northwest corner of the property, where it had been burning in the adjacent Bureau of Land Management lands. It made its way to the 3,000 foot ridge situated on the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources’ Hopland Research Extension Center property. A strong wind blew the fire down into the valley towards the center’s buildings and homes. The UC Research Extension’s resident shepherd herded the 500 sheep that live on the property to irrigated grassland and the scientists, educators, and researchers that live on the premises evacuated. During the fire, in 2018, two-thirds of the 5,300 acre UC Extension burned. Luckily, none of the buildings on the property were destroyed by the fire.
Hannah Bird, community educator at Hopland Research Extension Center (HREC), happened to be on vacation at the time, but the experience of thinking her home had burned down, and knowing the land she works and lives on was up in flames, changed her understanding of wildfire. “Of course, I don’t understand the hurt and pain of actually losing people or property, but I do have a greater sense of how people are affected by fire,” said Bird.
Bird decided to apply for a grant that would allow her to provide local students, teachers, and residents with information directly focused on how wildfires behave in this region. She hopes that this knowledge will empower community members and make them feel like they have more agency when dealing with wildfire, which she believes will become increasingly important as climate change continues to grow the frequency and severity of fires.
In her role as community educator at HREC, Bird, along with UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center and scientist Kate Wilkin, wrote a proposal and received a $100,000 education grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to teach Califorians about wildfire.
They published the press release announcing the grant earlier this month.
With the funding to back their efforts, they wrote a curriculum created to provide middle school students with knowledge about wildfire in Oak Woodlands. They piloted the lesson plans at Eagle Creek and Pomalita middle schools. Now they are coordinating with the Mendocino County Firesafe Council to translate informational pamphlets into Spanish. In mid-July, they will be offering a virtual teacher training to share their curriculum and knowledge with educators and other interested parties. The training will begin with a 30 minute introductory session on July 14.
Bird clarified that the program is not just for classroom teachers. “Folks that are kind of interested in possibly joining the training series I wouldn’t say don’t come if you’re not an educator, I would say come and we’ll find out if there’s a good way for you to spread information. It’s not about me offering the curriculum. It’s about giving teachers the tools so they feel confident teaching about wildfire,” Bird continued. “We recognize that our staff here is quite limited, but we feel this is a really important program. The only way for us to extend this is to provide the tools so that other people can share the information. Otherwise we just wouldn’t reach as many people.”
The hope is that the lessons in the curriculum will allow students to walk away feeling they have some way to make a change and be more prepared for wildfire.
“Living in this community, everybody is affected [by fire],” said Bird. “Everybody has a story of how it [fire] impacted their lives.” Bird and her colleagues hope that through education, they can help the community feel like they have more agency when dealing with fire. “Knowledge is great, but not if we don’t give you some way to actually use it,” said Bird.
The lesson plans are based on a United States Forest Service (USFS) curriculum that has been around for 50 years. Although Bird and her colleagues were impressed by the lesson plans, they saw some gaps. “The lessons are awesome but they hadn’t thought about Oak Woodland environments, which is what we find in inland Mendocino,” commented Bird.
This is important because the way fires act relates to their ecology. How a fire behaves in a woodland environment is different than somewhere dominated by another species, such as conifers.
In addition to tweaking the Forest Service’s curriculum to better suit this region of California, Bird and her team incorporated local, historical, and ecological fire knowledge by consulting tribes neighboring HREC. They also took into consideration the trauma students may have experienced and the anxiety they might have when learning and talking about fire. The first of the curriculum’s three lessons focuses on what feelings fire brings up for the students and what they feel comfortable discussing.
Another hallmark of the curriculum is building forest models and setting them on fire in order to learn about fire ecology and physics in a hands-on way.
“When I tell people we’re doing lessons about fire with middle schoolers and I say we’re actually lighting fire they say ‘you are crazy’,” recounted Bird. “But scientific studies actually show that the more youth know the less likely they are to deliberately or inadvertently start a fire.” Bird believes that the knowledge disseminated through the lessons gives children the opportunity to be responsible.
In addition to creating lesson plans for middle school students, the HREC is working alongside the Mendocino County Fire Safe Council to offer more comprehensive community education. This year, the Fire Safe is working with Ukiah Vecinos en Acción (UVA) to translate existing leaflets and other information about fire into Spanish.
Like most other things, COVID has changed the original plans for this grant, but that hasn’t slowed them down. “Lots of things are going on but wildfire isn’t going away either,” said Bird.
Bird believes that the most important part of all these programs, and especially the program geared towards middle school students, is that those that participate are left with a sense of agency. “We do not want them to feel at the end of the lessons — well wildfire is part of ecology but there’s nothing I can do about it,” she said “You have to walk out and feel like I have some way I can make a change and feel prepared. That’s the key.”
You can sign up here for the virtual teacher training program introduction which will take place on July 14 from 11:00AM to 11:30AM.