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Wildfires - Why are they a challenge to stop?

In this lesson students explore the extent of wildfires across the United States to determine the prevalence of wildfires, and the causes of wildfires. Next, they analyze model outputs to determine why it is a challenge to extinguish wildfires. Materials:
Developed by NESTA/Windows to the Universe team member Missy Holzer, PhD
Grade level:
Grades 6-8
60 minute class period
Student Learning Outcomes:
  • Students use online data tools to assess the extent of a wildfire season, and the dangers imposed on those living near areas prone to wildfires.
  • Students explore model outputs to identify the relationship between weather and wildfires.
Lesson format:
Research, data interpretation, and model analysis

Standards Addressed:

This lesson assists learners in developing proficiency in NGSS Performance Expectation MS-ESS3-2 (Analyze and interpret data on natural hazards to forecast future catastrophic events and inform the development of technologies to mitigate their effects.)


  1. For background information on wildfires, watch When Nature Strikes: Wildfires. Also explore the topic of wildfires on the Windows to the Universe website at the link listed below. As a prerequisite to this lesson, it is expected that students understand and can apply their understanding about the variability of basic weather parameters such as temperature, dew point, wind speed, precipitation, and relative humidity. If necessary, open the lesson with a brief review of these parameters. Make enough copies of the Student worksheet so each student has their own worksheet. Check the links the students will be using in this lesson, and if necessary find replacements for any that are no longer functioning (sometimes this is an issue when working with real datasets). The lesson is divided into 3 parts which can done on different days, all in one class period, or for homework.
  2. Begin the lesson by allowing students a few minutes to brainstorm with their neighbors the pros and cons of the use of fires. Ask the students to report out the items in their lists. For the pros, they will likely list the human needs of fire for cooking and heat, but may also mention that wildfires assist in maintaining the health of some ecosystems. For the cons, they will likely list the damages left behind by a fire. Use their lists to begin the discussion about how wildfires are a natural component of some ecosystems, and if the students are unfamiliar with the adaptations of some plants and animals to wildfires, allow them time to perform online research to identify the interesting adaptations of some of these organisms, such as fire resistant bark and pine cones that open only in intense heat (ex. Jack pine pine cones). To wrap up the discussion, ask students where these plants and animals are found. They should identify biomes (boreal forest/taiga, grasslands/steppe, woodland/chaparral) that lend themselves to wildfires; wet enough to grow plants that eventually will be fuel for fires, and dry enough for the plants to dry out. Ask the students if and where those biomes are located in the United States. In regards to human interactions with the natural landscape, "the Smokey the Bear Ethic," has also helped the build- up of forest litter in certain areas- increasing fire danger.
  3. Distribute the student worksheet. Tell the students that they will be using their understanding of weather and climate to identify fire-prone regions of the United States, and then use current data to identify currently at risk of fires. Direct the students to complete Part 1. Discuss their results. This is a good time to discuss the three sides of the "fire triangle" which shows what is needed for combustion: fuel (paper, wood, twigs, leaves, wax), heat (ignition source), and oxygen - the ingredients of fire.
  4. In Part 2 of the lesson students explore the locations of current fires, as well as areas of the United States under the risk of fire using online data tools. Check the links prior to the lesson to ensure they are working properly using your choice of browser. If computer access if limited, download the images or use the screen capture feature on your computer to grab the maps and data. Discuss the results.
  5. In Part 3 of the lesson students are observing coupled weather-fire model simulations of growing wildfires created in Dr. Coen's laboratory using data from past fires. They focus of this part of the lesson is for the students to recognize that wildfires can create their own local weather conditions which can cause a wildfire to shift in direction. It is important for students to recognize the scale of these models is smaller than in the previous two parts of this lesson where they are observing a smaller area. Students will be exploring three cases in this part. To assist students with interpretation of these models, explore the first model, Yarnell Hill Fire, together as a class. Discuss the contents of the description of the fire, and then run the animation a few times asking students to focus on the changes they are observing. Focus students on how and why the winds are changing direction and intensity. To close this part of the lesson, ask students to describe some applications for these models.
  6. Wrap-up the lesson by linking all three parts of the lesson together. Brainstorm a list of challenges in firefighting, and how knowledge of weather can assist in the control of fires.


Assess student abilities to seek patterns in data, make and support their inferences.


Use safe laboratory practices at all times.


Store any materials used in this lesson for future use.


  • There are many websites with data and data tools related to wildfire management. Visit the links below to tie in additional data analysis into this lesson.
  • Students can create a brochure (or website) used to educate those living in fire prone areas.
  • This lesson did not explore fire regimes outside the United States. Students can therefore extend this lesson by exploring biomes around the world. There are satellite images that show current wildfires around the world which can be analyzed.
  • This lesson did not look at secondary succession which occurs after a fire. There are many before and after images available for the Yellowstone National Park fires of 1988. Students can explore the rate at which secondary succession occurs by analyzing those images. ArcGIS Online is a tool students can use to display and analyze the fire data.
  • Students might look into the use of fire such as controlled burning of grasslands or wooded areas to maintain ecosystem health.


Wildfires are naturally occurring and human made. The ingredients of a wildfire includes fuel (wood, twigs, dry grasses, leaves, etc), heat (natural = lightening; human = campfires, cigarettes, deliberate actions, etc) and oxygen. Once a fire starts, one of the three ingredients must be minimized or diminished in order to stop the fire. Except for Antarctica, fires occur on all continents; however, some biomes are more conducive to wildfires than others (boreal forest/taiga, grasslands/steppe, woodland/chaparral) given the amount of available combustible material and dry climates.



Last modified April 28, 2016 by Jennifer Bergman.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA