Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder

Wildfire Role-Playing Game Inspires Colorado Students to Take Action

UPDATE 12/20/22: The Hazard Education, Awareness and Resilience Task Force (HEART Force) program was awarded $500,000 from NOAA’s Environmental Literacy Program to continue its work empowering rural Colorado youth and teachers to increase the resilience of their hometown to wildfires, flood or drought. HEART Force will use the grant, which runs through 2025, to write new curriculum and provide training for Colorado rural secondary teachers to increase their knowledge and confidence to teach about local natural hazard risk, the vulnerability of community members, and the social-emotional impact on students and community members. The funding will support continued implementation of the HEART Force curriculum, including the launch of a project-based learning elective class focused on a resilience project to be launched in four rural Colorado schools in 2023.

"We are excited to continue our work with rural communities, connecting meteorologists from the National Weather Service and the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit with youth and residents to better prepare them for future wildfires, floods, and drought. We've found that these hazards are on the top of Coloradoans' minds during dry years and the opportunity for them to get knowledge directly from experts empowers residents to prepare for the risks ahead,” Katya Schloesser, HEART Force program manager.

When Rebecca Chernin, a science teacher at East Grand Middle School in Grand County, Colorado, began engaging students in a wildfire role-playing game, she didn’t expect that her community would be engulfed by fire a few short weeks later. The games were part of the Hazard Education, Awareness, and Resilience Task Force (HEART Force) curriculum, a project run out of CIRES Education & Outreach.

On October 14, 2020, it was no longer an educational game: The East Troublesome Fire broke out, forcing Chernin and many of her students to evacuate.

The return to school after the fire was difficult for many. “It was a little too close to home, and I quickly transitioned to another unit because it was hard for me as the leader of the classroom to still be up there,” Chernin explained. But by January 2021, both she and her students were ready to revisit the hazard resilience curriculum.

As part of a semester-long class project, one team of students led a wildfire awareness campaign to increase knowledge about and preparedness for wildfire in their community. The students researched wildfire information and interviewed the fire chief and impacted community members. They then created short public service announcement videos about how to properly extinguish a campfire, how to properly store firewood, and what to pack in case of evacuation.

“I have been teaching for eight years and I've never seen a student group so engaged and wanting to come to class and wanting to give up their lunch periods,” Chernin said. “It was wonderful to see the students get so passionate about something.”

Chernin used to have nightmares about the fire, but after taking action with her students, the dreams went away. She found a way to heal through her experience with HEART Force and she believes that her students and the community members they interviewed did too.

High school student Raney Moore talks with community members at the Hotchkiss Wilfire Expo on May 1, 2022. Credit: Katya Schloesser/CIRES.

About 200 miles southwest of East Grand Middle School, students from Hotchkiss, Colorado, were also engaging with HEART Force’s wildfire role-playing game and classroom curriculum. The group worked with local firefighters, including Hotchkiss Fire District Chief Doug Fritz, to learn about wildfire risk and evacuation routes and to brainstorm ways to help their community better prepare for future hazards

In May 2021, the students from Hotchkiss High School, now called North Fork High School, participated in the RISE Challenge Colorado, which gives Colorado students the opportunity to share how natural hazards impact their community with experts and pitch ideas to help build community resilience. The students were awarded first place and funding for their proposal to host the Hotchkiss Wildfire Expo, an event to increase awareness about wildfire risk in their community. 

A year later, the 2022 Hotchkiss Wildfire Expo finally came to life, and one of the students from the winning team, Raney Moore, was there to share the HEART Force game that inspired the event with the community. 

“The best part of this project was learning about our community and how we can help reduce wildfire risks,” Moore said. “It was a growing opportunity for me to be part of this expo and to be in front of the community to share my knowledge.”

Community members gathered at the Red Mesa Fire Station on May 1, 2022 to learn about wildfire risk from Raney and local organizations, including Delta County Emergency Management. People crowded around high-resolution wildfire risk maps to see where fires might occur, signed-up for the emergency alert system, and listened to a wildfire weather outlook from a National Weather Service meteorologist. 

Katya Schloesser, CIRES E&O curriculum developer and the HEART Force program manager, is excited to see the project goals come to fruition. “With all of the challenges that the pandemic brought for our schools and community wellbeing, it has been so exciting to see students make such a big impact in their communities,” Schloesser said. “In these small towns, students are bringing people together to learn how to become more resilient and initiating conversations on how we adapt to increasing risks from natural hazards.”

City of Gunnison interns Jenny Nitzky and Shannon Hessler discuss the resiliency goals of the Gunni CARES climate action plan with Gunnison High School teacher Jeanene Nelson at the Gunnison Wildfire Expo. Credit: Katya Schloesser/CIRES.

As the 2021-2022 school year comes to a close, HEART Force students continue to make a splash across Colorado. The Estes Park Middle School Environmental Club won first place in the 2022 RISE Challenge. The students gave out free “Go Bag” kits to families at a Wildfire Awareness event held by the Estes Valley Fire Protection District, which included file folders for important documents, pouches for medications and guidelines for how to prepare a go kit, an easy-to-grab bag with essentials and irreplaceable items. And on May 17, the Gunnison High School Earth & Space Science Class hosted a Wildfire Expo in partnership with the Gunnison Volunteer Fire Department, an event where students and partners shared wildfire preparedness resources with community members. 

CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and CU Boulder.