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Review: Smokejumpers

Robert Prior, ePublisher of OAPT Newsletter

After this summer, wildfires will remain front-page news, and not just in places that are under threat of burning. How can you do hands-on activities in class with something so destructive? And why would you want to?

The “why?” is an easy question to answer. Not only are wildfires topical, but our students have been affected by them: by smoke almost certainly, possibly even worse (depending on where they are). Certain public figures have been throwing around blame for the many wildfires and the failure of fire crews to immediately extinguish them. An understanding of how wildfires are fought, as well as the costs and risks of doing so, will help our students appreciate the reasons we have so many burning wildfires, and hopefully help them learn to distinguish between serious questions and political point-scoring.

However, hands-on experience fighting wildfires isn't something we can give our students without violating many health and safety regulations (it is also potentially traumatic; I still have vivid memories of fighting a brush fire as a teenager, trying to beat back 12' flames before they consumed our camp).

That's where this simulation comes in. It's a solitaire tabletop game placing the player in the position of fire chief, responsible for containing wildfires for an entire season with a limited budget. The player deploys fire crews, aircraft, and other resources while the ignition and spread of fires is governed by rules based on the Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating System, which is backed by over 50 years of research.

Overview of the game
Smokejumpers is an old-school hex-based simulation game, based on old-school military wargames. Rather than play against another opponent, the single player deploys their forces against an inanimate enemy: a wildfire.

The board is a map of a typical landscape with a hexagonal grid superimposed to regulate game functions. There are four different maps, which can be combined to make a larger area.

  • the wildland map shows a typical boreal forest
  • the forestville map shows a forest/settlement interface
  • the highway map shows a scenic highway passing through mountain ridges
  • the parkland map shows an agricultural-forest boundary
240 small cardboard counters are used to represent fires, firefighting resources, and markers.

Fire counters have an active and a smouldering side. Active fires represent a solid flame front, too intense to extinguish. Smouldering fires represent a smouldering fire on the forest floor, which can be extinguished (but can also spread if wind and fuel allow).

Firefighting resources are generalized from the wide variety of crews and equipment used to fight wildfires. There are four-person crews, bulldozers, tanker trucks, helicopters, and water bombers.

There are also markers representing fire lines (of earth, water, and retardant) as well as counters to keep track of time, weather, and cost.

The game proceeds through a series of turns, each representing one hour of elapsed time. There are a variety of 12 hour single-day scenarios, as well as a complete fire season of 30 days.

Every turn is divided into five phases.

  • during the weather phase the wind speed and moisture content are adjusted, weather variability is checked, and the rate-of-spread determined
  • during the fire growth phase any active fires spread, using rules based on the Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating System
  • during the ignition phase new fires may start, depending on environmental conditions
  • during the resource phase the player moves and transports resources, as well as builds fire lines and extinguishes smouldering fires
  • during the expense phase the operational cost of all resources used during the resource phase is tallied
Once the end of the game is reached it is time to see if the player won, and if not how badly they lost.

The player wins if all fires are contained or extinguished within the budget.

The player has marginally lost if all fires are contained or extinguished but the budget is exceeded. They will likely get a poor performance review and no raise.

The player has majorly lost if the fire escapes (spreads past the edge of the map), or if they exceed more than double the budget. They will likely be grilled by their supervisors and possibly reprimanded.

The player has utterly lost if an urban hex was burned or if a resource was overrun by fire with no possible evacuation. They will likely lose their job, and may well face criminal charges.

The game provides the following scenarios, and of course you can create your own.

  • average day
  • gusty day
  • cold front passage
  • thunderstorm
  • dry lightning
  • intermittent rain
How to use in class
Giving each student a copy of the game is not only expensive, but a recipe for frustration. Instead, I run the simulation as a class activity. The students discuss what actions to take and arrive at a consensus, then I run the fire spread rules and repeat. Depending on the time we have, I either run a full game start to finish in a class or do a turn at the end of each period (which provides an incentive to finish early!). Particularly keen students sometimes want to play a game over lunch hour.

Depending on your classroom setup, you can attach the map to a whiteboard and use magnets on the counters, use a document camera to project the map on a screen, or scan the map and counters and use image editing or presentation software to display the map + counters on a screen. I recommend the latter option if you are running the game over multiple periods, as otherwise you run the risk of someone tampering with it between classes (unless you set it up every day and record it before cleaning up at the end of the period, which is time-consuming).

I usually run the game as an activity, with no assessment or evaluation. I have sometimes incorporated (easy) test questions based on the game, mostly to check that students were paying attention.

Where does Smokejumpers fit in the curriculum?
I've used Smokejumpers in both the ecology and climate units in grades nine and ten.

In grade nine I ran two scenarios, the forest and forestville maps, which drive home the risks of building within a potential fire zone. Students were really surprised at how expensive it was to fight a wildfire, especially near a settled area.

In grade ten I used Smokejumpers to look at the effects of climate change by creating a new scenario with drier conditions, which shows the large effect that apparently small changes in conditions can have. I have also had students create new maps based on actual locations to get a better understanding of the complexity and trade-offs behind what they hear in the news.

In the new destreamed grade nine science course Smokejumpers can help meet the following expectations:
  • B1.2 assess impacts of climate change on communities in Canada, including First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities
  • B1.3 investigate and explain how sustainable practices used by various communities, including First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities, reflect an understanding of the importance of the dynamic equilibrium of ecosystems
  • B2.5 explain the effects of various human activities on the dynamic equilibrium of ecosystems
In the academic grade ten science course Smokejumpers can help meet the following expectations:
  • D1 analyse some of the effects of climate change around the world, and assess the effectiveness of initiatives that attempt to address the issue of climate change
So where's the physics?
At a fundamental level wildfires are governed by physics (and chemistry). The rules for fire spread in Smokejumpers are a simplified version of a real-world model based on over 50 years of observations and research. The model is stochastic rather than deterministic, unlike most of the models high school students have been exposed to. The game’s author is a research scientist who has simplified his scientific models in designing this game.

How do I get a copy of Smokejumpers?
You can order a copy of Smokejumpers directly from the publisher.


You can see pictures and read more at Board Game Geek:


A note about the game designer
According to his Linkedin page:

Kerry Anderson is a fire research scientist (emeritus) with the Canadian Forest Service. Dr. Anderson received his B.Sc. in 1985, M.Sc. in 1991 and Ph.D in 2009 at the University of Alberta.

Dr. Anderson is actively involved in research to predict smoke forecasting, fire weather and fire behaviour. Through this research, Anderson has and continues to develop models to assist fire management agencies in daily operational planning by predicting the potential impact of fires on the landscape. These models provide a means to determine effective fire suppression response strategies to mitigate the threat. In turn, the goals are to help protect the public, communities, and forests; to promote the health of the forest ecosystem; to minimize fire suppression expenditures.
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