Linking Youth Wildfire Education to Fire-Adapted Human Communities in the U.S.

Project partners: 

Project Summary:

In this proposal we seek to answer the question: What types of and in what ways can youth wildfire education programs (YWE) contribute to the development and support of fire-adapted human communities (FAC)?  We will accept the elements of fire-adapted human communities as identified in the literature (green oval).  Our work will focus on the successful elements of YWE programs (the blue box), and apply a cross-disciplinary approach to understand the ways that YWE programs directly and indirectly influence youth and families, and contribute to a community being fire adapted (blue arrows).

Figure 1.—Model linking youth wildfire education programs and fire-adapted human communities

 Figure 1 - Model linking youth wildfire education programs and fire-adapted human communities

  1. Characterize youth wildfire education programs
  2. Identify how youth wildfire education programs support (directly and indirectly) fire-adapted human communities
  3. Identify how fire-adapted human communities facilitate youth wildfire education programs


Recent focus groups of fire managers in the southeast reveal that public education is one of their greatest needs (Long, 2009).  YWE programs could be one important strategy, but there is little research about YWE programs, particularly the extent to which they address living with wildfire or assist in developing fire-adapted human communities; however, we can obtain some guidance from the international disaster literature. Let our children teach us!, a United Nation's International Strategy for Disaster Reduction report (Wisner 2006), reviews the role of youth education and knowledge in disaster risk reduction, and builds on work that recognizes youth, families, schools, and other community organizations as agents for promoting community resilience to natural hazards (Ronan and Johnston 2005).  By focusing on youth, emergency managers are educating the adults of tomorrow.  In addition, they believe youth carry home messages relating to disaster management; their families, in turn, disseminate knowledge into the community. Environmental education offered through schools, recreation programs, and volunteer activities in the U.S. employs a variety of methods and strategies to introduce wildfire ecology and prevention. They may all be effective at what they intend to accomplish, but we suggest that some goals and educational strategies are more powerfully linked to enhancing fire-adapted human communities than others.

In a pilot study we reviewed 68 YWE programs in the U.S. created by natural resource agencies, environmental organizations and other non-government organizations. Three themes emerged from this research: (1) programs differ in the ways they position fire in relation to the individual, community and place, as some incorporate national curricula while others address their local social and environmental context; (2) programs differ in the ways theycharacterize fire, ranging from a natural and managed process to a malevolent destructive threat, and (3) program implementation is largely determined by mediating factors such as organizational goals, curriculum guidelines, and educator background. Important questions have emerged from this research, particularly how YWE program content and processes relate to wildfire management goals. We need to better understand the potential effects of youth education programs and the constraints and opportunities posed by communities before we can explore the extent to which these goals are realized.

That it should be reasonable to develop YWE programs to contribute to fire-adapted human communities is suggested by the following strands from environmental education, service learning, hazard education, and intergenerational learning.  First, education is most effective if it engages students in experiential learning (Kolb 1984), integrating experience and reflection rather than simply listening to a lecture.  Second, the use of local environments in place-based learning encourages students to integrate concepts from all of their subject areas and makes education more meaningful (Sobel 2004). Third, community-based service learning projects that youth help develop promote civic engagement and advance problem solving skills (Hammond 1994, Billig 2000). Fourth, hazard education programs build youth awareness, perceptions, and knowledge of risk reduction strategies, and promote home-based actions to reduce risk (Ronan and Johnston 2001). Finally, parents do learn from youth, with studies on intergenerational learning suggesting that when homework assignments and projects engage parents there are more purposeful conversations and behavior changes (Duvall and Zint 2007).

Thus we propose that high quality, place-based, youth education which involves service-learning projects that engage parents should have a direct, positive effect on the learner and an indirect effect on the families and communities. This is such an obvious statement that one might question whether this could be a new direction for research, but it is. Most educational programs do not attempt to change anything beyond the learner, and evaluations are limited to the program's objectives. Therefore most educational research only attempts to measure the direct effects on the learner. By suggesting that educational programs could have additional direct and indirect effects on adults and the community, we are pursuing a new line of inquiry—How does one create a youth education program to realize these effects, and how does the community help shape those programs?

Of course, YWE programs exist within communities, and we understand that the qualities of the community, community organizations, schools, and local agencies will affect YWE and the broader environment:  "community vitality and environmental quality are improved through the active engagement of local citizens, community organizations, and environmental resources in the life of the school" (Sobel 2004, 7).  Achieving fire-adapted human communities was identified as a societal goal in the Quadrennial Fire Review (USDA and USDI 2009).  To further the scientific understanding of fire-adapted human communities, we will synthesize the rapidly emerging interdisciplinary literature regarding resilient social and ecological systems (Berkes 2007).  Case studies rich in detail and nuance inform our knowledge of communities taking action to plan for and reduce the negative effects of local wildfire events (Jakes et al 2007; Steelman 2004); models exist to measure community vulnerability (Cutter et al. 2003) and resilience (Nelson et al. 2007; Norris et al. 2008) to natural hazards and climate change. By synthesizing the literature, we can better understand the capacities, skills and knowledge that communities develop to become fire-adapted.  We can begin to identify characteristics of fire-adapted human communities that support YWE, including local knowledge, networks, trust, access to resources, and changing ecological and social resilience. We can also suggest attributes of the community that will affect the ability of educators and leaders to interact effectively with youth.


Phase 1:  Develop a logic model connecting YWE to FAC

Logic models are useful tools for understanding how a project or program will produce a desired outcome.  A logic model illustrates the flow or linkages between inputs, programs, intermediate outputs, and outcomes.  We will use our past research, our YWE pilot study, and the literature to develop a logic model linking youth wildfire education programs and fire adapted human communities.  As part of the model we will propose checklist of elements of a successful YWE.  We will hypothesize the relationships between elements of successful YWE and FAC—what skills, knowledge, attitudes, and values do youth develop as the result of participating in a YWE (short-term outcomes) that we believe lead to medium-term outcomes and eventually contribute to the development of FAC.

We will test our model and fine-tune our hypotheses during presentations and roundtable discussions at professional meetings.  We will use these meetings to gather feedback on our logic model and Figure 1 (input on the “green and blue circles and connecting arrows”).  What examples currently exist of youth wildfire education programs contributing to fire adapted human communities (FACs)?  How might we evaluate YWEs and their contribution to FACs?  How do we evaluate FACs and how can they support YWE?   At these conferences we might gather names of others working in this arena (interested in elements of this question or have created successful youth or community wildfire education programs). 

Phase 2:  Field test logic model

We will test the causal relationships posed by the model, and the checklist of indicators, in different types of programs (school-based, club-based, volunteer programs) in states representing different regions of the country.  In each state we will conduct two tests—one in a community where community leaders think an YWE has helped build adaptive capacity, and a second where environmental educators think they have contributed to the adaptive capacity of the community.  Research partners will develop a methodology to test causal relationships and indicators.


  1. Literature review that helps identify indicators and provide evidence that will enable us to logically connect educational program strategies to community characteristics and individual behaviors to reduce risk and prepare for wildfire.
  2. Summary of three professional meetings discussion groups at IAWF, ISSRM, and NAAEE where we identify examples of youth wildfire education programs that contribute to fire adapted human communities (FACs) and learn how program coordinators have evaluated their success. At these conferences we will gather names of others working in this arena (interested in elements of this question or have created successful youth or community wildfire education programs).  These discussions will allow us to revise the logic model and checklist of indicators generated with the original logic model.
  3. Findings from research designed to test the causal relationships between YWEs and adaptive capacity.
  4. A more robust logic model, list of indicators for evaluation, and research questions that could help further our understanding of the relationship between education programs and community change.

Literature cited

Berkes, F.  2007.  Understanding uncertainty and reducing vulnerability:  Lessons from resilience thinking.  Natural Hazards 41: 283-295. 

Billig, S. J. 2000. Research on K-12 school-based service-learning: The evidence builds. Phi Delta Kappan, 81(9): 658-664.

Cutter, S.L., B.J. Boruff and W.L. Shirley. 2003. Social vulnerability to environmental hazards. Social Science Quarterly 84(2):242-261.

Duvall, J. and M. Zint. 2007. A review of research on the effectiveness of environmental education in promoting intergenerational learning. Journal of environmental education. 38(4): 14-24.

Hammond, W. F. 1994. Action within Schools. In Bardwell, L. V., M. C. Monroe, and M. T. Tudor (eds.)Environmental Problem Solving: Theory, Practice, and Possibilities in Environmental Education. Troy OH: NAAEE, 38-48.

Jakes, P., L. Kruger, M. Monroe, K. Nelson and V. Sturtevant.  2007.  Improving wildfire preparedness:  Lessons from communities across the U.S.  Human Ecology Review 14(2): 188-197.

Long, A. J. 2009. Personal Conversation about 2009 focus group data from JFSP in the southeastern US.

Kolb, D. 1984. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Nelson, D.R., W.N. Adger, and K. Brown. 2007. Adaptation to environmental change: Contributions of a resilience frame­work. Annual Review of  Environmental Resources 32:395–419.

Norris, F.H., S.P. Stevens, B. Pfefferbaum, K.F. Wyche, and R.L. Pffefferbaum.  2008.  Community resilience as a metaphor, theory, set of capacities, and strategy for disaster readiness.  American Journal of Community Psychology 41:127-150. 

Ronan, K.F. and Johnston, D.M. 2001. Correlates of hazard education programs for youth. Risk Analysis, 21(6): 1055-1063.

Ronan, K.F. and Johnston, D.M. 2005. Promoting Community Resilience in Disasters: The Role for Schools, Youth, and Families. New York: Springer. 210p.

Sobel, David.  2004.  Place-based education:  Connecting classrooms and communities.  Great Barrington, MA:  The Orion Society.

Steelman, T.A. and G.F. Kunkel.  2004.   Effective Community Responses to Wildfire Threats:  Lessons from New Mexico.  Society and Natural Resources 17(8):679-699.

US Department of Agriculture and US Department of the Interior. 2009. Quadrennial Fire and Fuel Report.  Available online [accessed 12 November 2009].

Wisner, B. 2006. Let Our Children Teach Us! A Review of the role of Education and Knowledge in Disaster Risk Reduction. ISDA System Thematic Cluster/Platform on Knowledge and Education. Available online [accessed 4 November 2009].