The 78 students who are lucky enough to spend their fourth-grade year at School in the Woods in Black Forest are referred to as "naturalists" because they focus on studying plants and animals as they live in nature.

This year's class tested that title to the extreme Thursday.

In the crisp, damp morning air, students grabbed work gloves, notebooks and measuring tape. With backpacks in tow, they hiked behind their school, stopping to study some scat, possibly coyote, and listen to words of wisdom about wildfire behavior.

The forest became a laboratory, as students planted 400 seedling trees on a 30-acre swath of the most devastated part of state forest land known as Section 16.

"It was awesome," 9-year-old Evan Hosey said after settling his first pinion pine in its new burrow. "We got to measure and make a well and put it 6 inches down in the hole."

Last year's massive Black Forest fire turned the portion of the 640-acre site into a barren moonscape because, as students learned, low-hanging branches acted as ladders for the flames, lifting the blaze from the ground to the top of the ponderosa pines. From the crown of the trees, it quickly spread.

The Colorado State Forest Service identified the acreage a stone's throw from the Academy District 20 school property as a priority for reforestation, said forester Matt Matwijec.

"It's one of the highest-severity zones," he said. "There's nothing left alive out here."

A grant secured by the forest service's educational program, Project Learning Tree, covered the $1,200 cost of the saplings.

"With fires, floods, bugs and crud, the world has been hard on trees in Colorado," said Shawna Crocker, the state's Project Learning Tree coordinator.

While kids got their hands dirty, they furthered their knowledge of plant development that had been nurtured in the classroom. In the forest, they learned where to plant aspen, white and Douglas fir, pinion pine and chokecherry for optimum success. They measured diameter and calculated circumference, and followed Matwijec's instructions to pack the dirt with a light but measured hand and make a depression to hold water close to the roots.

Student Anna Boone said it was nice to do something to fix earth that had suffered from the fire.

"I think it'll be a big help," she said.

The hands-on experience, said John Wuerth, coordinator at School in the Woods, "will help them realize they can have an impact."

"The most important part of this school is developing a sense of stewardship for the planet and being active partners in improving the situation," he said. "That's what they're doing today."

Since School in the Woods opened 15 years ago as an option for fourth-graders to dig into the field of natural sciences, students have worked to preserve the nearby forest land that they've used as a classroom. This year's group of students has the distinction of helping to regenerate the forest.

"I like that we get to get outdoors and learn cool stuff," said student Shannon McCall. "It's fun."

Matwijec said conservation volunteers are normally older than 9 or 10.

These aren't ordinary kids.

"They are naturalists," he said, "and they're really in tune to the naturalist process."

Wuerth said such seedling plantings usually have a 20 percent survival rate, but he's hoping to enlist students and families to water during the summer's dry spell to improve the odds and provide more teaching moments for future classes.

Four of this year's School in the Woods students lost their homes in the Black Forest fire, which started on June 11, 2013, and destroyed 486 homes.

"This is a hopeful experience, not only for this community, but for our planet in general," Wuerth said.

Crocker agreed, saying, "The very act of planting a tree is a very powerful experience for kids. They might have had a negative connotation to fire in the past, but now they'll have a positive experience."

Student Charlie Hund said he likes doing things that help the earth and nature.

"This means a lot to me to help the forest re-grow," he said.

The $10,000 grant from the American Forest Foundation and the National Project Learning Tree also provided free seedling trees to 12 other communities around Colorado for educational planting projects. Thursday's activity at School in the Woods was the first significant planting, Crocker said.