Fire Ecology


Fire Ecology Investigation - Intro
Photo courtesy of U.S.G.S.

In the Fire Ecology Investigation, your mission is to dig up both sides of fire in the forest - the good and the bad. Wait! Can fire possibly be good?! In your exploration, you can learn more than IF it's good, but when, where and how!

Why do we care? Because knowing all about fire ecology will give us clues to address our big question - why do today's challenges harm our forests' health and what can we do about it? Connecting these ideas to evidence and ideas from the other investigations will lead you to a solution for this case!

So, use your imagination and curiosity to investigate Fire Ecology.

  • Click illustration of activity-launch icon to expand any activity in the list below. .
  • Gather evidence: As you read, watch, and play, write your observations into your Investigator's Journal.
  • When you see this icon Investigator's Journal icon, write the answers to the questions shown. These will help you assemble the pieces of the case like a puzzle.

When you feel that you have all that the Fire Ecology Investigation has to give, choose a different investigation, or Solve the Case!

Visit the Scene of the Case


Our friends at the Greater Flagstaff Forest Partnership have created a fun way to investigate fire ecology.

Click the link below the picture to enter the Interactive Forest Kiosk.

There, click on the fire icons to reveal clues to understanding the forest. Remember that fire ecology is your top interest in this investigation, so be sure to click on both icons.

Click to enter the Interactive Forest Kiosk.

Click HERE to enter the Interactive Forest Kiosk. Close the tab when you're ready to come back!​​​

Let's write some ideas, thoughts, and questions in our Investigator's Journal!

Why do forest managers prescribe fire in our forests?

How has fire suppression impacted the forest ecosystem of today?

What new questions do you have about fire ecology?

Ponderosa Pete

Listen to this intriguing story written by Julie Blake Gidley and read to us by Helena Murray.

Prefer to watch and listen on Youtube? Click here. Simply close the tab to come back!

Let's reflect on Ponderosa Pete's story, and put some of our observations in our Investigator's Journal! 

What did you learn from listening to the story of Ponderosa Pete?

Why shouldn't people start fires whenever or wherever they like?

What new questions do you have about fire's role in our forests?


The Fire Triangle

Have you ever watched a fire grow?! How is that possible?

Let's record some clues in our Investigator's Journal, so we can use them later!

What are the three components of the fire triangle?

Why would a build up of pine needles, dead branches and too many trees close together be a problem?

Can you spot the difference between the Sequoia and the Ponderosa Pine?

What is the biggest difference between the two trees in the image below? How do you think that difference might help the Yellowbelly Ponderosa Pine Tree survive and thrive in it's environment?

As they get older, Ponderosa Pine Trees will naturally lose their branches, which makes it harder for the fire to reach the crown! This is called an adaptation! An adaptation is a structure, function, or behavior that allows a plant, animal, insect, etc, to more easily survive in their environment.


This would be a good thing to jot down in your Investigator's Journal! 

What do you believe is "super" about the Ponderosa Pine Tree that allows it to dominate the huge forest and to survive the challenges it faces?

Would you believe me if I told you the Ponderosa Pine Tree has Superpowers?

1.  Use your detective magnifying glass to look closely at the bark of this Ponderosa Pine Tree. What do you notice?

2.  Solve this puzzle to learn about a few of the Ponderosa Pine Tree's Superpowers! It will open a new tab in your browser. When you've completed the puzzle, close it's tab or just click on the Fire Ecology tab to return here. 


3.  The Ponderosa Pine Tree has even more cool Powers of Adaption. Check them out!

  • Fire Adapted! Bark shoots off during a fire to protect the tree
  • Drought Tolerant Power! Deep roots help the tree to reach hard-to-find water
  • Heat Protectant! Waxy needles protect the tree from too much moisture evaporation
  • Healing Power! Sap under the puzzle bark oozes out to seal holes in the armor (from predators)

What hunches do you have using this info? Write them down in your Investigator's Journal!

As the Ponderosa Pine Tree gets older, their bark changes from a black color to an orange/yellow color. What protects this tree from small grass fires?

Look closely, there are clues in the rings!

This tree cookie can tell us a lot about the history of our Ponderosa Pine forest. Let’s look closely and see what we can identify! 

Listen to hear the story of this tree cookie!

I spy a darker section in the middle of the tree cookie. It shows the first years of growth for our tree. What do YOU notice in the tree's rings? Connect this evidence to the tree ring evidence in the Forest History file to create a larger picture! What does a thicker ring tell us about the type of season the forest experienced that year? What about a thinner ring?

Let's investigate tree rings further! This link well open in a new tab. Remember to switch back to this tab or close the new one in order to return to this activity.

Follow the clues and write down what you discover in your Investigator's Journal!

What do tree rings show us about the impact of a small surface fire on the forest?

Different kinds of fire burn under different forest conditions

Historically, ground & surface fires came through the forest every 2-12 years, clearing out young saplings and debris and leaving fire-adapted, older trees behind.  In modern forests where debris and brush have been allowed to accumulate, crown fires are known to clear the land of all living things.


This appears to be a very important lead. Let's take a closer look and review the evidence again!

Ground fire: A ground fire can occur where peat, tree roots, or other burnable materials are beneath the surface. Ground fires can move along underground and, when they find a pathway, burn through to the surface and become surface fires.

Surface fire: Surface fires are low to high-intensity fires that burn on and above the surface of the ground, fueled by low-lying vegetation. A tree canopy can be scorched from below. If a surface fire blazes in the canopy to the extent that it passes quickly from treetop to treetop, it becomes a crown fire.

Crown fire: A crown fire is a fire of extreme intensity. A crown fire burns and spreads way up high in the canopy or crown of the trees. The influence of wind is greater in the tree canopy, and from this, the fire can spread quite quickly.

This sounds important! Let's add some information to our Investigator's Journal!

  • Create a chart in your journal and list the results of each type of fire.

Fire --->> Healthy Forest
Based on the results, which type of fire might help a forest to become or stay healthy?

  • Create a second chart in your journal and list the types of fuel that feed each type of fire.

Healthy Forest --->> Fire
Based on the fuels, which type of fire is most likely to burn in a healthy forest?



Ask the Expert

Ponderosa Pines seem like powerful allies when it comes to fires! Maybe our expert witness Gene from Cooperative Extension can give us some insight!


Prefer to watch and listen in YouTube? Click here - just close the tab when you're ready to come back!

What did you gather from Gene's answers? Write it down in your Investigator Journal!

Historically, fires came through this area every 2-12 years. What protects this tree from small grass fires?

Every mystery ever solved was first a puzzle..

Test your knowledge of fire's role in our forest ecosystem by doing a Fire Ecology Crossword Puzzle!

Instructions: To play, use the clues at the bottom of the screen to fill in the words above. Each line corresponds to the one word answer of your clue, and each box can hold one letter. To enter your word, double click on the middle of the box and type in your letters. Use the information you have learned so far to fill in the blanks on the crossword puzzle. Zoom window to 100%. You can type directly into this interactive document.

Need an audio version of these instructions? We got you!

These are tough clues to chase! Let's see how many you are able to track down! Way to work hard to solve the puzzle, Forest Investigator!!

Follow this link to the interactive crossword puzzle! This link will prompt you to make a copy of a Google Slideshow document in a new tab. Just close the tab and switch back when you're ready to return.


Now that we've solved the puzzle, let's write what we learned in our Investigator's Journal!

Name one adaptation of the Ponderosa Pine Tree that will help it survive a low intensity surface fire?


What type of fire is destructive to the forest ecosystem?

Good work Forest Investigator! Are you ready to gather more evidence?
OR solve the case!