Story last updated at 5:26 p.m. Thursday, June 13, 2002

Forestry program teaches educators fiery lesson
by Carey James
Staff Writer

photo: news
  Photo by Carey James, Homer News
Bill Sobers of the Anchorage Wildfire Partnership lights two matches in an experiment Saturday to show how preheated fuels burn more quickly.  
As Tok teacher Janice Smoke watched the palm-sized matchstick-forest fire burn rapidly up an incline last weekend, she stood back to shield herself from the heat. Even though it was contained on a metal tray and the flames were less than a foot high, the fire was impressive.

The Division of Forestry hopes Smoke and the other 17 teachers who attended a fire behavior and prevention training program last weekend in Homer will take their experience and new knowledge back to the classroom and pass them on to the students.

The Fire! in Alaska program has three parts: fire safety and prevention, fire behavior and fire ecology. Teachers, and hopefully students, can learn how fire can be beneficial to the environment and harmful to their community as well as the basic principles of fire behavior.

Matt Weaver, a forestry education program coordinator, designed Fire! in Alaska by drawing on several education programs including Firewise and a Montana-based fire science program called Fireworks.

"I figured if it can be hands on, interactive and fun for teachers and kids, people will use it," he said Monday after the first three-day program had concluded. "Where a lot of the other (fire) programs try to change the behavior of today's adults, this one educates the young as they grow up to become homeowners."

Among the activities, all geared for students in grades five through eight, were several experiments designed to give a better understanding of how fire works. In one experiment, teachers lit two matches, one with the ignition end pointing down and one pointing up. The match pointing down burned much faster than the match pointing up because the flames preheated the fuel source, the wood of the matchstick.

In another experiment, a board filled with a matchstick "forest" was lit in various spots, with various slopes, and participants learned how slope impacts the rate of fire spread.

On the third day of classes, instruction focused on creating a defensible space around homes with an in-the-field project that ranked several homes' ability to withstand a wildfire.

Participating teachers were selected from several areas identified as having high fire risk such as the Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna area, and each was nominated by their principal for the class.

The group of 18 teachers were the first to complete the Fire! in Alaska program, taught at Homer Middle School. Only teachers trained through the class are allowed to teach the curriculum and use the materials provided in 10 kits filled with everything from beakers to books.

Homer area teachers Chris Owens of Fireweed Academy and Lisa Stanyk of the Voznesenka school participated. Owens said she learned plenty of interesting information she expects her students at Fireweed Academy to gravitate to.

"I think I have a better knowledge of how wildfires behave," she said, adding that she feels there is a knowledge gap in that area. "As a teacher, I feel I can make a small dent in that gap by exposing them to some of the science of it."

Both Weaver and Owens said they aren't worried that students will take their new fire behavior knowledge and use it for malicious purposes.

"There are films and videos and discussions that graphically discuss the power of fire," Weaver said. "I think this curriculum will make kids less willing to experiment with fire because they will be so much more aware of the consequences of starting a wildland fire. Maybe the idea of starting a brush fire in a vacant lot will be less appealing."

Weaver said while creating the fire science program was paid for with a federal grant, assembling the kits was not and at $1,300 a piece, some significant fund-raising had to be done to find financial sources. The Spruce Bark Beetle Mitigation Program bought the first three kits, all of which will stay on the Kenai Peninsula. One is in Homer, and two more are in the Central Peninsula.

In the near future, Weaver said he hopes to enroll more teachers in similar workshops, thus expanding the knowledge about the positive and negative impacts of wildfire.

"Some of the folks said, 'You know, I'm an adult and I had no idea about a lot of this. I'm so glad for the opportunity to share this with my students,'" he said. "For the first shot, I think things went really well."