On Oct. 11, learning for local elementary school students took place in the Sierra Nevada forest, and their hands-on, hard-work lesson would bring tears to the eyes of the adults who helped guide them. It was Defensible Space Stewardship Day, and the Truckee Fire Protection District, Sierra Watershed Education Partnerships (SWEP), and students from Donner Trail Elementary School joined together to reduce the threat of wildfires and help community members in need.
The combined team assisted in clearing fuel ladders and lodgepole pines at a property in Emigrant Gap. The goal was to help Hank and Dee Dee Goodrich, an elderly couple living in a mountain cabin, who couldn’t create defensible space on their own because of health concerns and limited resources.
Truckee Fire Wildfire Prevention Manager Eric Horntvedt was among those actively engaged in the effort that saw students clearing the property of potential fire fuels, filling a 30-yard dumpster with ignitable debris in just 45 minutes. Hank and Dee Dee were impressed by the students’ commitment and focus. “The kids were amazing. They were hard workers and none of them strayed from the task,” Hank said.
Students voiced their enthusiasm for the project. “It makes me feel more safe, like I am responsible,” Elin said.
“I left that day with more hope than I have felt in a long time.”
~ Missy Mohler, SWEP Executive Director
In preparation for the hands-on effort, Truckee Fire and SWEP visited Donner Trail a day prior to engage students in a lesson that highlighted the significance of defensible spaces, home hardening, and the benefits of regenerative burning — a forest management strategy used by the Washoe People, the region’s original stewards.
Students were excited to have the chance to collaborate in a service-learning project to help community members side by side with uniformed fire personnel. Fletcher, a student participant, said, “If we do this more often, it’ll definitely make our forests safer!”
Amy King, principal of Donner Trail, underscored the lifelong impact of such projects, suggesting they might inspire future careers in fire safety. Erica Stukey Allstadt, a 4th/5th-grade teacher at DTE, praised the collaboration, emphasizing the importance of community service and practical application of classroom lessons.
The idea for Defensible Space Stewardship Day emerged from the FOREST⇌FIRE exhibit, which was created by SWEP together with local artists and partnering organizations. Running from December 2021 through September 2022, this well-received multidisciplinary art installation at the Truckee Community Recreation Center explored the historical and ecological narrative of forest fire management, showcasing a variety of art forms to propose a sustainable and resilient future coexistence with forest ecosystems in the context of climate change. As part of the project, SWEP created and implemented the corresponding classroom lessons, videos, books, art, and fieldwork projects such as Defensible Space Stewardship Day for local students, made possible through funding from the Tahoe Truckee Excellence in Education Foundation.
Melissa ‘Missy’ Mohler, executive director of SWEP, emphasized the goals of the Defensible Space Stewardship Day: to empower students to engage in positive action to confront the challenge of forest fires and to highlight the importance of community service. Seeing the project on Emigrant Gap unfold, Mohler was touched.
“I left that day with more hope than I have felt in a long time,” she said.
~ This story includes reporting from Simone Tenorio, who runs operations and communications for SWEP.