Local author is changing how we view forest fires
By Sara Edwards
Mar Vista resident Paula Henson has been teaching preschool in the area for 13 years with an interest in plants, gardens and the environment. Now a part-time elementary school teacher, Henson started to do a lot of writing during the pandemic and heard about a friend’s project on the history of forest fires in California through art installations.
“Next thing I knew, I’m writing a children’s book for the project,” Henson said. “I thought it was a really important story to tell and with my background in teaching, I thought this needs to be something that teachers can use as part of the curriculum in California history.”
Henson independently published “Who Needs a Forest Fire?” about a year ago as part of the Forest and Fire Art Project, which aims to encourage learning and conversation about the history of forest fires, the catastrophic Sierra Nevada Forest fire, and what can be done to help the forest environment in the future.
Because schools aren’t allowing outside visitors to speak with classrooms, Henson has a teacher guide on her website to help incorporate learning about these forest fires into the classroom and change the conversation surrounding forest fires and their history.
Born and raised in California, Henson and her son both went through the LA public school system. She said teaching kids in the school system today about the history of forest fires and environmental conservation is essential in order to protect the environment.
“It’s important for kids to look at California from an environmental perspective,” Henson said. “California history has always been whitewashed or romanticized. Something I’m working on is to try and change some of that curriculum to meet the state standards.”
Henson’s book tells the story of how the Indigenous people of California took care of the forest floor by using fire as a tool to keep the forest from becoming overcrowded and overgrown. The Gold Rush of 1849 brought settlers and miners who killed the Indigenous people and destroyed the forest ecosystem, stopping all forest fires which caused the forest floor to become overgrown, creating the perfect conditions for major wildfires.
“The other parts of the exhibition tell a really amazing story in a much more tangible way than maybe the book, but I’m looking forward to the official opening,” Henson said.
Henson has a political science degree from UCLA and went back to school to earn certificates in early childhood education and horticulture and gardening. She later became interested in landscape design, which led her to become interested in water conservation in Southern California.
Henson said L.A. serves as a bubble for kids living in such an urban environment because it disconnects them from learning about where natural resources really come from like water sources. In her future projects, Henson hopes to help educate kids more on the environment in her book and future projects to get kids thinking about water and environmental conservation.
Henson wants teachers and students to actively learn more about the California environment in general and change the way they look at the state’s history.
“It’s important to understand why we get to where we are with environmental problems,” Henson said. “People romanticize the California gold rush, but that’s not the only story. It may not be as glamorous, but it’s such an important and lasting perspective of California history.”
“Who Needs a Forest Fire?” is available for purchase on Amazon or terrabellabookx.com. The Forest and Fire exhibit will debut at the Truckee Community Recreation Center in October 2021.