One of my favorite experiences from my fellowship this summer was when I got the opportunity to actually conduct one of my lesson plans with some Youth Rangers. After doing a bit of research on local climate change impacts, I learned that one of the most substantial impacts on the island is the increasing risk and incidence of wildfires. Originally, fires in Hawai‘i were the result of volcanoes or prescribed and agricultural-related – but they were few and far between. As rainfall patterns change and drought intensifies, wildfires are spreading across the island pretty frequently, especially because of invasive species that are fire resistant or good at spreading fire. In 2018, there was a pretty massive wildfire at the park that was ignited by some construction equipment (over 90% of wildfires on the island are accidentally started by human activities like this). It burned over 3500 acres of native forest, and a primary reason it spread so far was because of invasive grasses that sprout up across recent lava fields, allowing the fire to spread from one forested area to the next. Vegetation serves as a great fuel for wildfires, helping the fire burn across large areas.

Lava field with dry vegetation
Newer lava fields generally stop the spread of wildfire because of how sparsely populated they are with vegetation. Invasive species, like some grasses, are starting to sprout up between the native plants, helping spread fires across lava fields. Photo Credit: Sana Saiyed

Wildfires are thus a huge threat to the park’s management of resources – they threaten native and endemic species, archives, buildings, etc. – and a huge threat to local communities. They destroy huge areas of land that sustain people’s livelihoods and cultures, they destroy homes and sacred spaces, and climate change is making this happen what seems like constantly. So of course, this seemed like a pretty important climate change related impact that needed to be included in the curriculum. A lesson plan around wildfires could cover so much ground: drought, changes in rainfall, invasive species, the importance of vegetation, and so on. I wanted students to do more than learn about why wildfires were happening more frequently, or what consequences this frequency has for the island’s ecology or communities. I also wanted this lesson to help them reconnect with their scientific intuition and establish a more long-term ability to learn from their environments.


Dying vegetation
Vegetation along the trail. Students can observe various types of vegetation to determine how it might contribute to the spread of wildfires. Dying or dead vegetation is good fuel for wildfires. Photo Credit: Sana Saiyed

The lesson takes students through the Ha‘akulamanu trail and parts of the Crater Rim trail. With the Youth Rangers, we started with a discussion on the wildfires that had been happening on the island most recently and I asked them to identify what they thought were contributing factors to the fires spread and cause. As we walked through the trails, I asked them to observe the vegetation and identify characteristics that they thought might cause wildfires to occur or spread more quickly. They suggested things like a plant’s leaf shape, how easily it moved in the wind, its wetness versus dryness, and a bunch of other characteristics. During the hike, they were touching the vegetation and spending a lot of time seriously observing and considering whether it would survive or spread a wildfire. As we continued through the trail, I would point out various vegetation types and ask whether they’d be good fuel for fire. The Youth Rangers themselves sparked tons of discussion points as we walked and observed including agricultural burning practices and how they’re useful for keeping wildfire incidence down, ways to educate communities about lowering wildfire risk, and the ecological and cultural consequences of wildfires.

We ended the lesson with a wildfire game developed by the University of Colorado – Boulder and NOAA. They were asked to allocate community resources in response to a spreading wildfire. As we played, we discussed what resources were most beneficial (or not) and they pointed out the importance of having a strong community focused on helping each other, rather than benefiting the self. During the game, they were constantly deploying community volunteers and figuring out ways their personal skills and interests would benefit the community given a wildfire scenario. Getting the chance to conduct this lesson helped me remember how willing our youth are to work together to enact necessary change. It also helped me remember how strong our scientific intuition can be when students are outside of their classrooms and able to actually observe and analyze the environment. Tapping into this intuition through inquiry-based, student-centered lessons helps students better understand how to recognize the impacts of climate change that are all around them. It was also just so much fun to have these important conversations and listen to the Youth Rangers’ ideas about how we can best solve them through community-focused initiatives. I’m looking forward to hearing from my park supervisor and colleagues about how the other lesson plans from the curriculum go once they’re implemented!