Project Learning Tree holds fire ecology workshop
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Project Learning Tree holds fire ecology workshop

Educational ranger John Isenhour (right) conducts a match forest demonstration for a workshop participant. (Photo by Becky Kirkland)

Ornate letter "O"
utside the Archdale Building in downtown Raleigh, small groups huddle around coffee cans, trying to start a fire with five matches and a variety of materials found in nature. They weren’t trying to keep warm on this unseasonably mild November day; they were learning about fire ecology.

The training was sponsored by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources Library, which hosts monthly environmental education workshops open to the public. This one was particularly successful, drawing 37 participants.

The workshop on fire ecology is a project of N.C. Project Learning Tree (PLT), a national program based in N.C. State University’s College of Natural Resources’ Cooperative Extension Forestry. PLT, which conducts environmental education programs for school teachers, is sponsored in North Carolina by Cooperative Extension, the North Carolina Forestry Association and the state Division of Forest Resources.

Facilitators for the November workshop included Renee Strnad, N.C. Project Learning Tree coordinator, and John Isenhour, educational ranger with Clemmons Educational State Forest in Clayton.

Participants had the opportunity to experience the Burning Issues multi-media CD, then left the building for fire activities. Each group had a can with some materials to burn, such as dry or green leaves and pine needles, twigs and larger sticks. They had only five matches with which to get their materials lighted.

The groups with drier, smaller materials found quick success. Those with larger materials or green plant materials found it harder — or impossible — to get the items to burn.

Isenhour described the fire behavior triangle, three factors that determine how forest fires spread: topography, weather and fuel type or load. To demonstrate, Isenhour created “match forests” of 100, 125 and 150 matches. The matches were clustered, heads up, sticking out of a metal frame.

When lighted, fire spread more quickly in the more densely stacked “match forests,” just as fires can leap from tree crown to tree crown in a real forest fire. One of the match forests was lighted at a 33-degree angle to demonstrate how fire moves uphill.

N.C. Project Learning Tree has reached more than 90 teachers and natural resource professionals with the fire ecology workshop since spring 2003. The program is funded through a grant from the Bureau of Land Management and the national Project Learning Tree program.

The workshop covers topics including eco-habitats that need fire to survive and tips on “fire-wise” strategies for fire protection. For more information on Project Learning Tree workshops, visit

--Natalie Hampton

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