Action Fosters Hope: a Defensible Space Stewardship Day
“I am working with SWEP and the Truckee Fire District today. It makes me feel more safe, like I am responsible; like I am making an act on fire and helping people that can’t do this themselves. It just makes me feel happy!” - Elin
Chainsaws roar noisily around us as the scent of freshly cut evergreens permeates the air. Defensible Space Experts from the Truckee Fire Protection District (TFPD) have been at work here since the early morning, clearing fuel ladders and crowded lodgepole pines from this quaint wooded property at Emigrant Gap on Donner summit. A yellow school bus pulls into the narrow tree-lined driveway. Donner Trail Elementary School (DTE) students have arrived to join forces with Sierra Watershed Education Partnerships (SWEP) and the TFPD in a Defensible Space Stewardship Day. Their shared goal is to help Hank and Dee Dee, the elderly couple in need who lives in this sleepy mountain cabin, to create defensible space, harden their home, and mitigate catastrophic wildfire risks. Students' sense of excitement is palpable; it is not every day that they get the chance to collaborate in a service learning project to help community members side by side with uniformed fire personnel.
To set the tone for the day, students, instructors and fire personnel gathered in a circle, acknowledging the Washoe People, our region's original stewards. After reviewing the goals and expectations for their time together, students were divided into 5 groups and assigned to one SWEP instructor and one Defensible Space Expert per group. Gloves, rakes, and garbage bins in hand, everyone got to work, raking pine needles and cones, gathering limbed branches and tree stumps, and clearing duff and other fuels, leaving behind a bare forest floor.
"We are collecting most of the sticks out of the way, and cleaning up all the duff so it can’t burn up when fire is around. I feel like I am doing a good job. I feel like I am making people feel more safe. I feel good about it!” - Summer
The air was abuzz with energy and laughter as students flitted back and forth, delivering load after load of ignitable debris to a 30 yard dumpster. "I really like doing this because it is helping others," said Zoe, a student at Donner Trail Elementary. "But it’s also important because we are helping people stop fires from burning down their house," added her classmate Jane. Students were so eager to get the work done, they filled that 30 yard dumpster in a mere 45 minutes! Needless to say, the adults working alongside these inspired students were pleasantly surprised to witness their fervor and commitment to the task at hand.
“These are the projects that, at the very least, students remember all their lives. But more importantly, helps connect them to their community and enables them to feel like an important part of a larger community that takes care of each other. And who knows? Perhaps this will spark a career in Defensible Space or Firefighting when they're older.” - Amy King, Principal, DTE
One day earlier, TFPD and SWEP came to Donner Trail Elementary for a pre-lesson, educating students on the importance of defensible space and home hardening, and the positive emotional and psychological impact of service learning. Truckee Fire Prevention Experts felt heartened to learn that several students had prior knowledge about defensible space requirements, having helped their parents clear their homes and properties of fuels - a direct result of Measure T initiatives that were adopted in our district in the fall of 2021. During the presentation, we touched upon the risks of catastrophic wildfire for our forested mountain communities, and the benefits of regenerative burning for our Sierra ecosystem - a forest management strategy the Washoe People used to steward our region for thousands of years - and students acknowledged the dilemma this paradox poses for our communities.
"This is a collaboration with SWEP and Truckee Fire District for defensible space around a home in Cisco Grove. It feels like it makes me feel safe around areas that don’t have that much fire protection. If we do this more often, it’ll definitely make our forests safer!” - Fletcher
During the pre-lesson, students learned that Hank and Dee Dee have health concerns limiting their physical ability to do defensible space work on their own, and that they do not have the resources to hire someone to do it for them. Their need for assistance had been identified during a recent defensible space inspection. Knowing this, students felt inspired to participate in the service aspect of this project: they wanted to help Hank and Dee Dee, as well as their Donner summit neighborhood, in becoming safer and more fire resilient.
“Working on this project and with this team has been incredible. The students walked away with a true sense of purpose and a deep understanding of how to apply what has been learned in the classroom to their local community. We believe that Donner Trail is unique because we are a family and through collaboration with SWEP and partners, our students proved that this family works hard to do what they can for others.” - Erica Stukey Allstadt, 4th/5th teacher, DTE
Over the last 3 years, SWEP, together with local artists and partnering organizations, brought the FOREST⇌FIRE Exhibit to the Tahoe Truckee region. More specifically, SWEP was responsible for creating and implementing the corresponding classroom lessons, videos, books, art and fieldwork projects for local students, made possible through funding from the Tahoe Truckee Excellence in Education Foundation.
In the face of climate change and surging wildfires in California, the topic of wildfire - while scary - is relevant and vital to our community. Today's climate reality can be stifling, particularly for youth who feel anxious and helpless due to the sheer magnitude of environmental challenges. SWEP believes that when we educate and empower youth to engage in positive action for their community and the planet, we also instill in them a sense of hope for our collective future.
"My goal with this project was to empower students to take action over the frightening subject of forest fires. I believe that action projects can promote hope over very scary climate related topics, and we all need hope around the topic of forest fires. Furthermore, I wanted to give the students an aspect of service and compassion to this project, where they could learn about the value of defensible space and how it can keep us safer, while directly helping a neighbor in need. In the end, the work we all did together (students, teachers, SWEP staff and the Truckee Fire Prevention District staff) made us all feel better, but the students took the lead and really impressed us all. I left that day with more hope than I have felt in a long time." - Melissa 'Missy' Mohler, Executive Director, SWEP
At SWEP we believe that service-learning experiences such as the Defensible Space Stewardship Day not only inspire students to take knowledge home to share with their parents – they also instill a sense of hope and feeling of safety as students work toward helping their fellow neighbor and community in becoming more fire resilient. One student summed up the experience perfectly during our stewardship day. When asked, "what did you learn today," he triumphantly answered, "I learned yesterday in the classroom lesson, but today wasn't about learning; today was all about making a difference."
We thank the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District and Donner Trail Elementary School for supporting SWEP programming. We thank our supporters, the Excellence in Education Foundation, for providing the seed funding 3 years ago to bring the Forest ⇌Fire Program and Defensible Space Stewardship Day to fruition. We thank the Truckee Fire Protection District for their support in bringing this unique service learning project to local students. Our goal is a continued partnership to bring more relevant and vital forest health, defensible space and stewardship programming of this kind to students in our community.