Resources Details

Forest Fire Smoke

This activity on forest fires and their atmospheric side-effects teaches students the significance of massive fires common in the American West during summer months, as well as atmospheric condensation caused by smoke. Students research and discuss the devastation caused by forest fires, then predict what happens to the large volumes of smoke produced by these fires. Students conduct an experiment on smoke particulates and water condensation, recording their results in science journals and writing a separate report based on the results. A Blackfeet narrative about traditional native uses of fire and about present-day firefighting crews encourages students to think about multiple effects of fire, both positive and negative.

Key Concepts

Atmospheric Science, Water Condensation, Smoke Dispersal


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1 50 minute class period




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Earth Science

Resource Type

Extended Lesson Plan





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Many people see major wildfires as devastating natural disasters, but the Blackfeet Indians of present-day Montana see fire as a major part of their cultural circle of life. The tribe has always considered fire as sacred. In Blackfeet tradition, a family member was given the right to light and keep fires burning inside the lodges. These individuals were known as the Keepers of the Fire. The fire keeper would maintain a fire to warm the home and cook the food, until it was time to move camp. Only the fire keepers were given the right to light and maintain fires used for religious ceremonies, including fires within the sweat lodge. Native Americans also used large fires to rejuvenate the surrounding landscapes and bring new plant life, which in turn brought more game animals hunted to feed the people. Today, fire still is significant to the Blackfeet Nation, affecting warrior status among the tribe. It is an honor to fight forest and grassland fires, and each fire season the Blackfeet firefighting crews are sent to many states to stop major fires. Not only does this bring honor and respect to the Blackfeet people, it also brings prestige and money to the reservation. In the year 2003 alone, Blackfeet firefighting warriors earned almost $3 million fighting forest fires across the western United States.

The forest fires of 2003 were devastating to Montana and many other western states in the United States. Montana's fire season that year followed several years of droughts. Droughts are caused by long periods of unusually low precipitation. The forests become very dry during these low-precipitation seasons. Precipitation includes rain, snow, hail, sleet, and any other form of water that falls to the ground. Rainfall amounts can be recorded in a rain gauge. Rain gauges typically are wider at the top and funnel down into a narrow section at the bottom. This shape permits more accurate measurements of the rainfall (common gauges can be as accurate as 0.01 inch of rain). To measure snowfall, the depth is calculated as well as the amount of water in the snow. The snow must be collected and melted to determine how much water is in the snow. All of these measurements combine to form precipitation data and maps.

When landscapes experience prolonged drought conditions, they are very susceptible to forest and grassland fires. The level of humidity, or moisture content, in the atmosphere also affects fire conditions; if humidity is very low, fires tend to spread farther and faster. Some fires are started by lightning storms and winds common in places like Montana can spread fire very quickly. Forest fires in particular can influence the quality of the air. During large-scale fires, many people need to wear face masks to protect themselves from thick lingering smoke and the pollutants in the air. The pollutants -- which are very small particles of solid materials like burnt wood -- are carried away by wind currents. Sometimes forest fire smoke can be seen in the skies of western states as it moves through the atmosphere away from the fire source. Eventually the particulate matter falls to earth, often in precipitation droplets formed by condensation of atmospheric water vapor around the solid pollutant particles.


The purpose of this classroom activity is to give students an introductory understanding of atmospheric condensation and its relationship to forest fire smoke. Students discuss forest fire situations and side-effects, then conduct a classroom experiment to study the interaction of air moisture and smoke particulates to form water droplets (condensation). They learn that Native American culture contains long-held traditions about fire and that present-day Indian firefighters combat forest fires throughout the western United States.


Edith Horn Wagner
Cultural Consultant - Blackfeet

I have been teaching for 12 years, two of which were in Frazer, MT. I currently teach 6th grade math and science for the Browning Public Schools. I am married and have 3 children.


Learner Outcomes

  • Discuss and research the causes and effects of forest fires and the voluminous amounts of smoke released during large-scale fire events.
  • Conduct a classroom experiment on the relationship between air moisture and particulate matter leading to water condensation.
  • Appreciate that past and present native cultures have important relationships with fires large and small.

Content Standards

  • Blah


  • 2-liter clear plastic soda bottles with caps (two/group of 4 students)
  • Masking tape for labeling bottles
  • Potting soil or regular dirt
  • Water
  • Graduated 50-ml cylinders (one/group), 50-ml beakers (one/group)
  • Wooden splints (two/group)
  • Butcher paper
  • Science journals
  • Internet access

Lesson Procedures

  • Bring students together for a large group discussion about forest fires and their effect on the environment and the economy. List what students know and what they would like to learn about forest fires.
  • Discuss how forest fires start and how we fight these fires. Explore the connections with drought and with the accumulation of fire fuel in the forest.
  • Discuss with students some of the forest fires that made headlines in the past few years (the resources section below lists websites on devastating forest fires in Montana and other states).
  • Inform students that smoke does not just "disappear" and that smoke is actually small particles of ash and soot. Ask the investigative question: What happens to the smoke caused by forest fires? Ask students whether they think weather has any impact on what happens to forest fire smoke. If there is moisture in the air or in the ground beneath the smoke, will the moisture affect what happens to smoke? Which other types of weather conditions might affect the dissipation of smoke from fires?
  • Ask students to list their ideas about what happens to smoke caused by forest fires. Have students record these predictions on butcher paper or in their science journals.
  • Divide students into groups, each of which will do an experiment that examines what might happen to smoke after a fire.
    • Give each group two 2-liter clear plastic soda bottles with caps.
    • Have groups add soil or common dirt to each bottle until the dirt is about 6 cm (about 2½ inches) deep.
    • In one bottle, moisten the soil with 50 ml of water (about 4 tablespoons). Leave soil in the second bottle dry. Label the bottles "wet" and "dry," respectively.
    • Have students record what they think will happen to smoke in the two bottles . Note for teacher: In order for condensation to occur there must be particle matter and water vapor in the air. There should be more condensation in the damp bottle than in the dry bottle. The smoke should dissipate more quickly in the damp bottle.
    • Instruct groups to light a splint with a match and then place the burning splint quickly inside the bottle with the damp soil. Screw lid on bottle. Place the hot match into the 50 ml beaker for safety. SAFETY TIP: The teacher may light matches and splints as a safety precaution.
    • Ask students to record in their journals their own observations of what happens inside the damp-soil bottle.
    • Repeat steps 10 and 11, using the dry-soil bottles.
    • Have each student also make comments in his/her journal about what actually happens to smoke from forest fires.
  • Return to a large group and discuss what happened inside the two types of soil-containing bottles. What will happen if the bottles are left overnight?
  • Place bottles near a window and leave overnight.
  • The next day, have students study the bottles. Students should notice condensation inside both bottles, but more inside the bottle with the moist soil. Why? Have students record observations in their journals.
  • Ask students to write an individual one-page report about the effects of forest fires and what happens to the smoke and its particles after a forest fire.


  • Forest fires can cause significant problems for local communities, destroying trees and buildings, hurting animals, and costing money for firefighting.
  • Local weather conditions affect both how forest fires start and how difficult it is to put out the fires.


  • Participation in class discussions
  • Participation in group experiment
  • Individual science journal
  • Individual one-page report


  • Invite a member of the U.S. Forest Service to speak to the class about firefighting and to display firefighting equipment.
  • Do an assessment of the fire safety of the school. For example, are trees too close to the building? Is there a non-burnable barrier (like cement or gravel) around the school?