Our Complicated Relationship with Fire


Abstract: Every summer we hear about wildfires burning throughout California and the arid West. This summer has been no exception. In fact, the number and extent of this summer’s wildfires are greater than in recent years, despite the heavy rains and snowfall we enjoyed this winter. Though it seems counter-intuitive, the precipitation helped fuel these fires by creating substantial new growth, and when the grasses and other new plants dry out during the high summer temperatures they create ideal conditions for fire. Moreover, bark beetles, which thrived during California’s many-year drought, caused the death of millions of trees in the state’s forests that are also now ripe for burning. Though the danger posed by fire can suggest that it is something to battle against, fire is also a tool that provides light, heat and energy for humans. Moreover, fire is one of Earth’s natural processes, and it plays an important role in many ecosystems that humans rely upon. In short, fire brings both benefits and danger to humans, and, not surprisingly, we have a long and complex relationship to this elemental force. This Current Context provides students with a short history about people and fire, and the complicated relationship between the two. This teaching resource also includes a map, discussion questions, and other information about fire in California.

Teaching suggestions:

If you are looking for complete lessons that will give your students standards-aligned, in-depth information about the relationship between fire and human history, the Education and the Environment Initiative (EEI) units have multiple helpful lessons, including lessons on the burning of fossil fuels and industrialization, and the connections to climate change. Below are some highlights, and to see the entire list of relevant lessons for almost all grade levels, see page 6 of the Current Context piece.

4.2.1. California Indian Peoples and Management of Natural Resources, lesson 6 “A Burning Question – California Indians’ Use of Fire.” This lesson helps students understand the many ways in which California Indians regularly set fires to their landscape for reasons as varied as improving their harvests to providing for easier movement through the forests. The lesson activity includes student “mini-dramas” to reinforce lesson concepts. Engaging maps and visuals provide additional support for student learning.

6.1.1. Paleolithic People: Tools, Tasks, and Fire, lesson 4 “Fabulous Fire.” This lesson explores the ways that Paleolithic people used fire to their advantage, and what fuels they used to create this fire. Students learn that fire, as a cooking tool, improved people’s health and food supply. Finally, students look for continuities between tools used during Paleolithic times and today.

10.3.1. & 10.3.5. Britain Solves a Problem and Creates the Industrial Revolution, lesson 3 “More People, More Cotton, More Coal.” In this lesson, students analyze data on population growth, cotton consumption, iron production, and coal consumption during the early industrial period to understand the growing demands on natural resources to fuel economic development. Students also examine primary sources such as paintings and letters to better understand the environmental impact of industrialization on Britain’s air and water quality.

Consider listening to this NPR interview with Jennifer Montgomery, leader of California's Forest Management Task Force, as she succinctly describes why wildfires are becoming more common and what we can do to improve this situation: https://www.npr.org/2019/10/28/774120054/wildfire-season-is-here-to-stay

Have you been teaching about fire in California, or elsewhere, with this year’s big fire season? Please share any ideas and resources you have for your colleagues. Write to us at chssp@ucdavis.edu.