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FOREST⇌FIRE: Re-evaluating our relationship with fire in our forests

Updated: Jan 28, 2022

"What happened this summer that affected each and every one of us?"

A sea of hands goes up and all of the third graders know the answer I'm looking for: forest fire.

The third graders already knew a lot about the fires that burnt throughout the western states in the summer of 2021. They knew how dangerous and destructive they were. They knew that we need to change the way we manage forests, but what most of them didn't know was that forest fires are part of a natural cycle and that we actually need more fire. This is not what Smokey the Bear taught us. He taught us to prevent fire at all costs; that fire is the arch-enemy of forests. Hindsight is 20-20 they say. Well, it's 2022 and it is time to change our relationship with fire. It turns out the Washoe people, who managed the forest for thousands of years, know more than Smokey the Bear. Let's have their example lead us to a closer relationship to fire and healthier forests.

Paula Henson wrote the book Who Needs a Forest Fire? as part of the FOREST⇌FIRE project. This beautifully illustrated book highlights the importance of fire. Small fires reduce the likelihood of catastrophic fire and help generate new growth. Small fires keep our forests from getting over-crowded with many unhealthy trees struggling and competing for resources. The book has two parts. Part one is a history of our forests, from the first people to inhabit the Sierra, to the environmental disaster of over-logging the forest, to the present day. Part two shares recommended forest management practices to ensure we have healthy fire, not catastrophic fire, Native American practices, and lots of useful links to educational resources for teachers.

We discussed what we knew about forest fire, what we wanted to learn, and after reading the book, what we had learned. Everyone was certain that fires are dangerous at the beginning of the lesson and after reading the book together, everyone understood that sometimes, and when used in the right way, fire is good for forest health. Many students were keen to know why forest fires spread and what fire actually is.

These lessons are part of a larger project called FOREST⇌FIRE . Be sure to check out an incredible free art exhibition at the Truckee Recreation Center (10981 Truckee Way Truckee, CA 96161).

Many thanks to Tahoe Truckee Excellence in Education Foundation. With their help all the students were given a copy of the book to take home, on the condition that they promised to share the book with a family member or friend. After all, Smokey has been the spokesbear for forest management since 1944. We could all use a little re-education.

Read more blogs about SWEP's Forest/Fire education programs here

Who Needs a Forest Fire? children's books are available for purchase at Word After Word bookstore in Truckee or online. For the ebook and free teachers guide please visit

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