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Wildland Fire Science School - Part 2: Fire Impacts and Ecology

Students will use investigate the impacts of fire, such as erosion, landslides and debris flow, invasive species, air quality, water quality, and stormwater runoff. A combination of videos, research, and visual data analysis with Landsat images is used to engage students and connect them with benefits and ecological costs of wildland fires, especially in their own region and ecosystems. 

Part 2: Fire Impacts and Ecology

Lesson: Burning to Learn

Grades: 6-12


  • Ecosystem impacts of fire
  • Fire management

Materials Needed: Access to computer and a digital camera.

NGSS Alignment:

  • ESS3.C: Human Impacts on Earth Systems
    • The sustainability of human societies and the biodiversity that supports them requires responsible management of natural resources. (HS-ESS3-3) 

    • Scientists and engineers can make major contributions by developing technologies that produce less pollution and waste and that preclude ecosystem degradation. (HS-ESS3-4) 

  • LS2.C: Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning, and Resilience

    • Moreover, anthropogenic changes (induced by human activity) in the environment—including habitat destruction, pollution, introduction of invasive species, overexploitation, and climate change—can disrupt an ecosystem and threaten the survival of some species. (HS-LS2-7)  

  • Science and Engineering Practices

    • Asking Questions and Defining Problems 

    • Planning and Carrying Out Investigations 

    • Analyzing and Interpreting Data 

    • Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking 

    • Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions 

    • Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

  • Crosscutting Concepts
    • Cause and Effect 

    • Scale, Proportion, Quantity 

    • Energy and Matter 

    • Stability and Change 


Students will investigate the impacts of fire, such as erosion, landslides and debris flow, invasive species, air quality, water quality, and stormwater runoff. A combination of videos, research, and visual data analysis with Landsat images is used to engage students and connect them with benefits and ecological costs of wildland fires, especially in their own region and ecosystems. 

Part 2 of Burning to Learn has four lessons: 

  • Lesson 1: Exploring Earth from Space – a Satellite view of Fire 
  • Lesson 2: Fire around Me 
  • Lesson 3: Impacts of Fire 
  • Lesson 4: Wildland Fire Management


  • Erosion 
  • Landslide 
  • Debris Flow 
  • Stormwater 
  • Runoff 
  • Invasive species 
  • Landsat

Teacher Background:

This unit is designed so that students will become the experts on their chosen topic within ecosystem impacts of fire. Teachers may wish to familiarize themselves with direct and indirect impacts of fire. Below are brief introductions to some of the ecological impacts of fire.

Erosion and Runoff 

Wildfires often burn ground cover and vegetation, which leaves soils exposed to precipitation and wind, and vulnerable to erosion. When fire causes soil surfaces to harden, precipitation runs off instead of soaking in, which further erodes the surface. 

Landslides and Debris Flow 

An extreme case of erosion is when a section of sediment, usually on a hill or slope, is loosed and flows downward. A debris flow is an especially fast-moving landslide that is dangerous to life and property, as they can be sudden and powerful, and can sweep away people, plants and animals, cars, buildings, and bridges in their way. They usually start after storms and heavy rains in areas that have recently burned. This webpage provides links and resources about debris flows. 

Water Quality 

The combination of wildfire and erosion can result in heavier-than-normal levels of sedimentation into rivers. Often this run-off is contaminated with ash and the toxic remains of things that have burned. This, in turn, can impact drinking water and water used within and by the ecosystem. Here is an explanation of the impacts wildfires can have on water quality. 

Air Quality 

Air quality during a large wildfire can have detrimental impacts on ecosystems and human health. Research indicates that these impacts include substantial increases in carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and airborne particulate matter. More information on the human health impacts and data can be found at the Department of Energy  Berkeley Lab Indoor Air Quality Scientific Findings Resource Bank and at the Alaska Division of Air Quality.  

Invasive Species 

Fire can have complex impacts on the colonization and spread of invasive species, depending on the ecology and life history of each species. In arid ecosystems, such as chaparral, wildland fire can result in the further spread of invasive grasses. However, there are many native plant species that are adapted to fire and require a fire event to germinate. Likewise, prescribed burns can help to control some invasive plant species. The National Invasive Species Information Center has a variety of resources and research on this topic. Invasive insects can also be a problem following wildfire, especially forest fires. 

Landsat Imagery 

Earth Resources Observation and Science Center (EROS), a joint effort by USGS and NASA, operates the Landsat satellite program in which they collect, analyze, and store satellite imagery of Earth to document and analyze change. EROS has several activities and lessons for teachers and students, as well as imagery that is available to the general public. Their EarthExplorer allows users to search for imagery by State, Features, Date Range, and Cloud Cover. The EarthNow! Image Viewer allows users to see imagery as it is being downloaded from the Landsat. The EROS History Project has data and reports dating back to 1962. These are all useful sites for students and teachers to gain background or use for research and data analysis.


Students will: 

  1. Interact with USGS science data on wildland fires 
  2. Be able to explain ecosystem hazards associated with fire 
  3. Be able to explain Landsat imagery and use it to evaluate evidence of the effects of fire


Lesson Plans


  1. Project the photo from this one-question quiz: Hazard a Guess 
  2. Without showing the possible answers, have students share their ideas about what could happen at this spot after a fire.  
  3. Show possible effects, as given in the quiz.  
    • Debris flows 
    • Dust storms 
    • Landslides 
    • Invasive species 
    • Changes to water quality 
    • All of the above … and more 
    • Nothing to be concerned about 
  4. Ask students for help in defining what each of these might be and what they might look like within the ecosystem. This could be done in small groups or as a whole group. Questions for students to discuss could include:
    • How could each of these affect the ecosystem? 
    • How could each affect people? 
    • How long might the effect last? 
    • Which, if any, of these are most likely to occur in our nearby ecosystems?


Lesson 1: Exploring Earth from Space – A Satellite View of Fire


  1. Students navigate to this link and use the Landsat Introduction Activity handout located under Related Documents on the right side bar. 
  2. Students do the Earthshots activity. This can be done digitally or with cards downloaded by the teacher. There are two pairs of cards that depict the impacts of fire. In the card file, these can be found on pages 41 and 49. To use the digital activity, have students navigate to the Earthshots page, scroll down, and select “Fire”. To use the cards, the teacher can navigate to “Download Cards” in the left-hand column and download the pdf. One set for each group of pages 41 and 49 can be printed off or the teacher can project these images in the classroom. 
  3. Students explore fire in their ecosystem or region, or a region of choice. 


Lesson 2: Fire Around Me

Explore Fire in Your Region

Have students explore fire in their region and ecosystems through videos and articles. A two-column research notes form is provided.

Possible links:





Pacific Northwest

Southern California




Lesson 3: Impacts of Fire


  1. Have students do the Photo-documentation Activity (see pdf link on right side bar) to start brainstorming and to make connections to ways they use fire and ways in which fire impacts their home, community, or culture. 

  2. Once students have been introduced to the ecosystem impacts of fire, they can research relevant impacts or ones that interest them most. Students are often asked to conduct predetermined research or investigation, whether it interests them or not. This is an opportunity to help students identify topics within wildland fire impacts that interest and/or affect them personally. We suggest that you start with an engaging, personalized activity first, such as the photo-documentation activity, to help students connect to the topic before they identify that which interests them most.  

Important note for educators: If you live in or near an area that is vulnerable to fire, this portion of the lesson can be even more culturally relevant. For example, you could: 

  • Connect with a fire science expert from the community and meet them either virtually, in your classroom, or in the field.  

  • Take a field trip to a nearby burn site to observe and compare with unburned sites. 

  • Access the National Interagency Fire Center website for data investigations:  

Suggested research plan for students: Small groups or individuals can choose a topic from the list below, or propose a different type of fire impact to their teacher. See the Three-Column Research Notes: Impacts of Fire handout on the right side bar. 


  • Erosion 

  • Landslides and debris flows 

  • Invasive species 

  • Air quality 

  • Water quality 

  • Stormwater runoff

Topics to research: 

  • Explain the issue/ecosystem process you chose to research from an ecological standpoint. 

  • How does wildland fire contribute to or create this issue? 

  • How does it affect the ecosystem? 

  • Is fire a natural part of this ecosystem? 

  • Explain the history of fire suppression in your ecosystem or nearby ecosystem. 

  • What land management practices are happening there now? NOTE: Public land management is conducted by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 


Lesson 4: Wildland Fire Management


Students can delve deeply into wildfire science and land management using the Land Treatment Exploration Tool (LTET), which allows them to follow their interests and develop authentic hypotheses and land management ideas based on data. Using the LTET, students develop scenarios and hypotheses for wildfires as a land treatment tool. This activity is also included in the Fire Management and Climate Change unit. 



Now that students have researched their ecosystems, the role of fire in their ecosystem and the impacts fire has on a variety of ecosystems, the teacher should select a final product for assessment. A few possibilities: 

  • Make slide, poster, or video presentations to the class. 

  • Create a one-pager on all they have learned in this unit (see Fire Basics for ideas). 

  • Time-intensive but meaningful and authentic: Student groups create posters, informative brochures, web pages, or oral presentations about fire in their local ecosystems to interested stakeholders, such as the community or parents and guardians. This is an excellent way for students to engage deeply with the material; this can be informative or persuasive if they are making suggestions. This also ties nicely into the next set of lesson plans on Fire Management and Climate Change. 


Suggested Websites for Research

The below resources may be used as part of the Lesson 3 activity:


Landslides and Debris Flow

Water Quality

Air Quality

Invasive Species