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Environmental, social impacts of Waldo canyon fire studied

May 3, 2013 Updated: May 21, 2013 at 12:55 pm

This spring, the Waldo Canyon fire has come under the microscope of two Denver professors and their five students, who spent the semester studying the environmental and social impacts of the most destructive fire in Colorado history.

Last September, professor Anne Chin, of the University of Colorado Denver, first stepped into the burn scar - as a geomorphologist, someone who studies how landscapes change, the area was a perfect petri dish.

'It's exemplary of a case study, ' she said last weekend, as she prepared to enter the burn scar again. 'It interacts with people so much. '

Chin won a National Science Foundation grant that got her into the scorched forest quickly last fall. But this spring she combined her efforts with assistant professor Gregory Simon, and the two created a class that meshes two different but ultimately very connected sides of the Waldo Canyon fire - how the fire changed the land and how it changed Colorado Springs.

The class- with the weighty title of 'Synthesis for Interdisciplinary Science ' - took a field trip to the burn scar last weekend. Chin has spent months setting research points throughout the scar, which she mapped for the students. And now that the winter is over she is resuming her field work.

The class, the second to go with Chin into the forest, would visit Williams Canyon, Rampart Range Road, sections of Camp Creek and finally drive through Mountain Shadows, where the fire destroyed 347 homes last June.

The forest remains closed to the public, and Chin's research permit is her passport into the blackened scarscape, where she and other researchers are soaking up the lessons it offers. From there, the students can see the fire destruction from a perspective that is not so obvious to the city from below.

They can see, for instance, how the forest drainages dump into Mountains Shadows - a topic of great concern when summer rain starts to fall.

'You can see how everything connects, ' said Simon, who has also studied the impact of devastating wildfires in California, and who sees many parallels to the Waldo Canyon fire.

Although the California fires burned thousands of homes, none of them cost as much money in damages as Waldo - according to a comparison chart prepared by Chin's students.

The students are a mixed bag of undergraduates and graduate students. Isaac Rivera, a graduate student studying environmental health, and Qwyla Foutch, an undergraduate student in geography, focused on water quality issues as a result of the fire. Fellow student Alejandra Uribe is a student seeking a master's degree who's studying the social impacts of fire. This marriage of humans and nature drew them to the class, the students said. The class opens eyes to how the world is changing and why, Foutch said.

'It links things like global warming to human impacts, ' she said.

The class is the first of its kind about Waldo Canyon that Simon and Chin have taught, they said. They hope to offer the class next spring, and possibly for years to come, so they can build data over time, Simon said.

What exactly they will do with the data collected by professors and students, and how they will present it to Colorado Springs, remains in flux, Simon said.

'We're an experiment, ' Foutch added.

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