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Fighting Fire with Fire: Protecting the Homes of People and Birds

This article is from Issue Wildland Fire - Vol. 4 No. 1.

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The California gnatcatcher is a little bird with a big problem. Its habitat has been reduced 80 percent by people that are building homes and businesses in coastal southern California. The scientists in this study wanted to know how prescribed fires, rather than wildland fires, affect the California gnatcatcher and its habitat.

Welcome to the Wildland Fire edition

Note to Educators

The Story of Smokey Bear

Education Standards Correlations


Meet the scientists that contributed to this article:

"Science Topics" covered in this article:
  • Earth Science
  • Life Science
  • People and Science
  • Technology and Science

"Environmental Topics" covered in this article:
  • Importance of Forest to People (Students)
  • Protecting Trees and Other Plants (Students)
  • The Value of Forests and Grasslands (Educators)
  • Vegetation Management (Educators)
  • Vegetation Protection (Fire, Insects, Endangered Species) (Educators)

Regions covered in this article:
  • Alaska
  • Intermountain
  • Northern
  • Pacific Northwest
  • Pacific Southwest
  • Rocky Mountain
  • Southern
  • Southwestern

"Thinking About Science Themes" covered in this article:
The natural world holds many secrets. Although scientists study just about everything you can think of, there is still a lot to learn. In this study, the scientists wanted to learn about the habitat of the California gnatcatcher, a small grey bird that lives in a particular area along the coast of California (figure 1). This little bird is listed as threatened by the U.S. Government. In 1993, a wildfire burned 10,000 hectares of land. (To figure out how many acres this is, multiply 10,000 X 2.47.) The wildfire killed 330 of the 2,200 pairs of gnatcatchers. (What percentage of the gnatcatcher pairs were killed? Divide 330 by 2,200 to find out.) The scientists wanted to know how any future fires would affect the remaining birds. When scientists begin to study a problem, they always learn as much as possible about their subject. They do this by going to the library, just like you do when you write a class paper for school. The scientists found out that people do not know very much about what the gnatcatchers eat and where they live. As you can see, scientists learn not just from observing things and doing experiments, they also learn by reading and studying.
Specific "Thinking About Science" Themes:
  • Scientific Topics
  • Uses and Benefits of Science

"Thinking About Environmental Themes" covered in this article:
Along the central and southern pacific coastline of California, there is an area of land that has a lot of different kinds of shrubs growing on it. Altogether, these shrubs are called coastal sage scrub (figure 2). The climate in this area is hot and dry, and the shrubs usually do not grow higher than 2 meters. (Calculate how many feet this is by multiplying 2 X 3.28.) By the end of the summer, the shrubs become dry and brittle from the hot summer sun, and they often lose their leaves from the heat. The southern California coastal area is a place where people like to live and work, mainly because the weather is warm there all year, and the ocean is not far away. When people build houses and businesses on land, they change the land. When people build houses and businesses on land with coastal sage scrub, they remove the shrubs and replace them with buildings, roads and parking lots, and grass and other nonnative plants. This might not seem bad for people, but it is not good news to the California gnatcatcher. This little bird needs coastal sage scrub to reproduce. When people change the land, they almost always affect the plants and animals that live there.
Specific "Thinking About the Environment" Themes:
  • Ecosystems

NSE Standards covered in this article:
  • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry (A)
  • Natural hazards (F)
  • Nature of science (G)
  • Populations and ecosystems (C)
  • Regulation and behavior (C)
  • Reproduction and heredity (C)
  • Risks and benefits (F)
  • Science and technology in society (F)
  • Science as a human endeavor (G)
  • Structure and function in living systems (C)
  • Understandings about scientific inquiry (A)

Science Benchmarks covered in this article:
  • Habits of Mind: Critical-Response Skills
  • Historic Perspectives: Understanding Fire
  • Human Society: Social Trade-Offs
  • The Nature of Science: Scientific Inquiry
  • The Nature of Science: The Scientific Enterprise
  • The Physical Setting: Processes that Shape the Earth
  • The Physical Setting: The Earth