Fourth grader needs suggestions for wildfire demonstration

Let’s also come up with ideas for gatherings of adults

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demonstration of pyrolysis
Apparatus for demonstration of pyrolysis, used back in the day.

Today I received a message from a mom who needs our help:


My son chose the topic of wildfires for his project on natural disasters. We’re having a hard time thinking of a demonstration that’s safe for his classroom. Do you have any suggestions?

Thank you.

So, I’ll put this out there for our readers. Can you help out this fourth grader that has an interest in wildfires? The young man needs to choose a demonstration this week. Leave a comment with your ideas.

The tricky part is coming up with something that will be safe to do in a classroom full of 10-year olds.

The first thing that came into my mind was a demonstration of pyrolysis, the process of combustion of vegetation. Before canned training was developed for entry level wildland firefighters, we wrote lesson plans and stood before the new hires and taught them about fire behavior, line construction, weather, and fire science. At least that’s the way we did it on the El Cariso Hotshots.

One demonstration I used that would not be safe for a fourth grader without adult supervison, was pyrolysis; showing them that when wood or vegetation is consumed in a fire, it’s actually a gas that is burning. It would be best to do this outside in an area cleared of flammable material. Stuff a coffee can with some sawdust or dried vegetation (grass or brush). Take aluminum foil and form it into an upside down funnel and place it around the top of the can, making it as air-tight as possible (similar to the photo above). Then make a hole a little smaller in diameter than a pencil at the top of the foil. Place the can on a heat source, such as a stove, and wait until a steady stream of smoke comes out of the hole at the top. Then hold a long butane lighter used for igniting a BBQ grill adjacent to the smoke and watch the gas burn. A version of this is described on YouTube.

Another demonstration that absolutely would not be suitable for a fourth grader is something we wrote about in 2008:

Everybody at some point has played with matches. Mike Dannenberg of the Bureau of Land Management, a fire suppression supervisor in Montana and the Dakotas, puts on a presentation about residential fire preparedness that involves hundreds of matches. The article at has more details as well as a series of photos. Here is an excerpt.

“I liken it to building in a flood plain,” said Dannenberg. “If you thin around your house, if you reduce the fuel load, if you build out of materials that are not combustible a lot of times it will protect your home.”

Demonstration fire slope clearance
Demonstration of fire on a slope, and how a clearance around structures can be effective..

Dannenberg has created a demonstration model to show the intensity of a canopy fire. He loads a pegboard with hundreds of match sticks. Each match represents a highly combustible evergreen tree. A road snakes through the middle of the model forest. The upper corner of the board features a homestead with a house, garage, and various outbuildings. The scene is created to the specs recommended by the BLM. Each building is covered with a metal roof and the yard space has only sparse and wide spaced trees.

Dannenberg tilts the board to replicate the speed of a fire moving up the slope of a hill or mountain. He lights a single match at the far end of the pegboard and at the foot of the simulated hill. The fire spreads rapidly, but stops short of the home–leaving it untouched. It’s an effective demonstration that Dannenberg says plays itself out every summer in the western United States.

UPDATE, February 24, 2020: 

There are some good ideas in the comments. Keep them coming. Like the one above (the matches on the peg board) some of them are not appropriate for fourth-graders, but somebody somewhere might find them useful at another venue. So think about gatherings of adults as well.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please keep in mind our commenting ground rules before you post a comment.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

18 thoughts on “Fourth grader needs suggestions for wildfire demonstration”

  1. Hi Bill. I was studying fire behavior when I was in school. I went to Jemez Springs, New Mexico to talk with Ranger there, Fred Swetnam, Tom’s dad. I asked him what he could tell me about how fires behave. He thought about it for a minute then said, “Watch this!” He swept his arm across his desk and cleared it off in a dramatic fashion. He then got a glass of water and held the glass above the now-clean desk. “This is how fires behave,” he said, pouring the water on top of the desk! I was very impressed and bemused. I never forgot his lesson. Ever after when I would take or teach fire behavior I would remember Fred’s lesson and all of the elements, from downdrafts to Danger to erratic unpredictable chaos he showed me one sunny spring day in his office.

  2. So much like the water lesson from above, you could use water, orange food coloring to color the water and paper towels. Simply pour the water out from one end of the paper towel and watch the color soak through them and across. You can pour it into the center of the towel or from one corner or end. Not accounting for wind slope etc. I’m sure you can come up with ideas for that. But something simple that can replicate some fire behavior! Best of luck

  3. If he can go outside he can use a bubble machine to explain how fire reacts to weather and topography, the bubbles will react to any of the slight changes created by both and show the path of the fire.

  4. Using a sand table would work. He will need help with set up and tear down, but it would be safe and use materials that kids are already familiar with and probably have on hand. The scale could be kept small, say the size of a wash tub or Rubbermaid lid. The only limits on possible scenarios would be his imagination.

  5. In the 90’s Ron Hodgson and I did neighborhood fire planning programs in Shingletown, Weaverville and a few other places. These meetings included fuel loading and continuity demonstrations using newspaper. Two groups would be given identical amounts of paper. Each group would cut the paper into 2″x2″ squares (while doing the cutting we discussed fuel loads and fire behavior). Once the squares were cut, one group crumpled their paper to represent ladder fuels and the other laid theirs flat on a metal plate. Once the crumpled papers were on a metal plate both were lite. The rate of spread and flame heights were discussed. Same fuel loads, different fuel positions, substantially different fire behavior. We did the same again but tilted the metal plate to represent slope and compared it to the flat terrain fire behavior.

    I am not sure this is a good demonstration for 4th graders, especially those fascinated with fire. Also make sure there is no wind as the crumpled papers can go air borne. I always had a CDF engine at these meetings and door prizes. Back in those days it was harder to get landowners out to discuss fuels reduction.

  6. How about a laptop simulator program that would allow them to experiment with different variables that impact spread rates, intensity, etc?

  7. Take a couple dozen home-baked cookies over to the fire station and find out if they’d be willing to come over to the school with an engine and a half-dozen firefighters. Have the KID lead the talk and demonstrate/display the main tools/equipment/functions on the engine. Let him direct the firefighters for a hose demo. Distribute safety cards to all the students. Get one of the firefighters to kiss the teacher and the kid’s a hero.

  8. How about an environmental spin on wildfire, emphasizing the importance of wildfire to the ecology of the forests? Collect a few “serotinous” (pr: SAIR-RO-TIN-EOUS) pine cones (pine cones which are covered with a resin that must be melted for the cone to open and release seeds) – like Jack Pine (east coast) or Lodgepole cypress and knobcone pine cones (west).

    Using a heat gun (teacher can help) (or a toaster oven – see YouTube (info:, experiment:, Wildfire Today: heat the pine cone on a baking tray, turning it with cooking tongs before any side burns. The heat will cause the pine cone to slowly open, spreading its seeds.

    The Lesson? Fire is a natural part of the forest ecology. Trees evolved with fire to spread their seeds when competing brush and grasses are burned away.

  9. Ser-ROT-tin-us. As in those are serotinous cones I’ve ever seen. Common in lodgepole pine but not all lodgepole cones are serotinous, not all depend on fire to release seeds.

  10. There are some fairly sophisticated and impressive sand table-type simulators out there that use nut shells as the “sand.” The table uses an overhead projector run from a laptop to project a map and terrain down onto the “sand.” The laptop program controls the variables of fire spread and the inputs of suppression.
    It’s worth calling around to state and fed fire management offices and ask if they have one and would be willing to demonstrate the simulator.

  11. I would bet you could set up the fire spread match demonstration with dominoes.

    Space them closely together and they all fall down, create defensible space and the house is saved.

    Until someone bumps the table and everything falls over.

  12. Showing wildland fire history on a slice of a fire scarred tree is interesting and quite safe for all ages. Also, it demonstrates very well that fire is a natural part of the forest environment.

    John Marshal has an excellent article titled “Fire In the Dry Forest” on his web site “Wild Land Northwest” Scroll down in the Article to see a photo of a “Tree Cookie” with nine fire scars from the years 1604 through 1803

    Depending where you live you could probably borrow a Tree Cookie from the Forest service or even find a stump from a Fire Scarred tree and cut your own.

    John Marshal is very accommodating and I suspect he would give you permission to use his article and photos. You can contact him through a link at the top of his web site.

    Tom Jones FBAN Emeritus

  13. The cookies-and-engine idea:
    I worked with a couple of IMTs on a fire on the Umpqua one year, late summer, and someone had a brilliant idea to drive down the river to the grade school and invite all the classes up to the fire camp to have a little tour and demo. You never saw such a giddy bunch of kids. Especially the hose demo. One firefighter from out of state told me later at supper that was the most fun he’d had in several years, standing straddling the hose with a little kid in front of him holding on. They did some foam. The kids went nuts. Teachers and PIOs and others unanimously LOVED it.

    We had kinda been the bad guys up till then because of all the freakin’ traffic on a little 2-lane forested road alongside the river running through several little communities. The next day we all were heroes. Amazing what a good idea can turn into.

    For the little time it cost the feds for a couple hours of engine crew and a PAO or two, that was worth a blinkin’ fortune in community PR ….. and I’m sure those little kids are now big adults who still remember that.

  14. Watching a sane and sober Forest Ranger sweep his desk clean and pour a glass of water on top. Bemused.

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