Wildfire Science Lesson Packet
- August 31, 2020 -

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In this lesson, we address the science behind wildfire and address some critical questions: is the season getting longer? Are fires getting worse? What should we do about that?

Get this lesson: You can download the full packet here or read a condensed version of this unit below.

Worksheet: Download just the worksheet or there’s a copy included in the packet.


Wildland fire occurrence and suppression has had a long and varied history in our country.  For most of the 20th century, any form of wildland fire, whether natural or human caused, was quickly suppressed for fear of uncontrollable destruction. Today policies have evolved to using fire as a tool, such as controlled burns.  Climate change has increased the frequency and severity of wildfires creating “100 year” fires every couple years.


Historically fire would help clean out the understory and dead plant matter in a forest, allowing native tree species to grow with less competition for nutrients. Native Americans would often burn woodlands to reduce overgrowth and increase grasslands for large prey animals such as bison and elk. When the US Forest Service was established in 1905 fire suppression became the only fire policy for the next 50 years. In 1968 the National Park Service changed its policy to recognize fire as an ecological process. 

Video resources:

Interactive map of fire alerts on world map – Global Forest Watch’s interactive map of global fire activity shows where in the world there’s been a fire in the past 24 hours.

Why Are There So Many Fires? – A video from The Guardian with great visuals addressing why the amount of fires has increased so much.

Fire tornado in Loyalton fire – A short video clip of a fire tornado caused by the Loyalton, California fire in August 2020.

Sample Research Project:

Matchstick Forest Demonstration: Students learn how wildfires behave and spread by placing matches in a variety of configurations. This sample experiment can be adapted for many grade levels.

Sample Research Questions: 

  • How does the fire change depending on the configuration of the matches
  • Is more smoke produced when the matches are close together or far apart?
  • How long does it take to burn all the matches when they are close together?
  • How far apart do the matches have to be to not burn when one is lit?
  • What happens when some matches are taller than others?

NGSS Standards:

MS-LS2-3; MS-LS2-4 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics

HS-LS2-6; HSLS2-7; HS-LS2-8 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics


  • Analyzing and interpreting data
  • Constructing Explanations and designing solutions
  • Planning and carrying out investigations
  • Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information


  • Cause and effect
  • Stability and change
  • Patterns
  • Systems and system models




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