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Gazette Premium Content Tour of burn areas helps teachers understand fire, forest ecology

By Debbie Kelley Published: July 5, 2013

"Once the fire's out, it's a whole new kind of hell," booms Theresa Springer to her rapt audience.

As the environmental education coordinator for the Coalition for the Upper South Platte - a nonprofit organization formed to help protect watersheds after Colorado's devastating Hayman fire in 2002 - Springer knows what she's talking about.

Recently, she was glad to share her knowledge with a most important group - those teaching the next generation.

Twenty-two educators from around the state came to southern Colorado to become students in a classroom of barren, blackened landscape.

Participants studied fire science, forest health, flooding and other topics during the 12th annual Fire Ecology Institute for Educators, held June 23-28 at the Nature Place in Florissant.

The aim is to send educators back to their classrooms armed with the background and resources needed to create lessons for students, said Shawna Crocker, coordinator for Project Learning Tree. The program of the Colorado State Forest Service provides activity guides, science experiments, fire ecology materials and other educational resources.

"Children are agents of change. They will teach their parents and friends, who will teach their neighbors and families," she said. "The new buzzword is 'fire-adapted communities.' We've got to assume this is the new norm. We might as well figure out how to deal with it."

Springer used the Hayman fire, the largest in Colorado history at 137,760 acres, and last year's Waldo Canyon fire, the second most destructive in the state with 347 homes destroyed, as the training ground for her presentation, which began in her organization's office in Lake George, near where the Hayman fire started.

She matter-of-factly laid out the situation.

"We're beyond defensible space - that should have been done years ago. We're into thinning the forest. But getting rid of slash is extremely hard. We have mountains of slash, 10,000 piles to burn. People see the smoke. Somebody invariably calls it in, and we stop burning. That's where teachers come in. You guys have got to educate the next generation how to create healthy forests and how get rid of forest debris," she said. "These hot fires we're experiencing were created by us. They're our fault, and we've got to fix it."

Teachers gained access to burn areas that remain closed to examine the aftermath and learn about the ecological effects of wildfire and rehabilitation efforts. They heard from foresters, biologists, ecologists, geographers and firefighters.

Atop Pyramid Mountain, above Cascade, they found insects and larvae in the trunks of dead trees, one year after the Waldo Canyon fire ravaged the area.

Debby Penny, a teacher at Skyview Middle School in Falcon School District 49, said the workshop came at a perfect time, given that the Black Forest fire was still smoldering in her neighborhood.

"I want to get a better understanding of the causes and effects of fires on the environment and explain that to my students, many of whom were evacuated in the Black Forest fire," she said. "They need to understand fire management and water management are important and what they can do to help."

As the group looked down on U.S. 24 and Manitou Springs, Springer issued dire predictions. Asked about the probability of a catastrophic flood in the Waldo burn scar this summer, she answered, "One hundred percent."

"After a fire, every flood is magnified. What's going to flood are places that never flooded before," Springer said.

But emergency plans are in place, she said, with water gauges spread throughout the area. Once rainfall reaches trigger points, evacuations will be enacted, she said.

"We're buying people time to get out alive and possibly come home to something they can salvage," Springer said. "Everyone up here is a weather-watcher. Every day this summer, they're on alert."

Some 4,000 sandbags are in place to funnel water around homes beneath Pyramid Mountain, she said.

"It's shocking how little I knew," said Tricia Blomquist, who works for Academy School District 20's Home School Academy. "Until it hit close to home, it didn't seem like a reality. Now, it seems like we're going to lose more businesses and homes to flooding."

Another D-20 teacher, Allison Apeland, from Eagleview Middle School, plans to incorporate what she learned into science classes to make the subject more interesting for her special education students.

"I'll probably design my own lesson plan," she said. "The subject is so fascinating and compelling, and I want to learn every aspect about it."

Participants hiked several miles to study the damage from the Waldo Canyon fire at Blodgett Peak Open Space. The popular recreation spot in Peregrine, near the Air Force Academy, has been closed to the public because of fire damage and is undergoing restoration work.

Eric Billmeyer, a lecturer at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and a Rocky Mountain Field Institute researcher, led the group in testing fire-exposed soil to demonstrate how intense heat changes soil and does not let water penetrate its surface.

"This is the wildest place I've ever gone to do an experiment for school," said Sharon Majetich, who teaches at Rocky Heights Middle School in Highlands Ranch. "It's a great opportunity."

Sponsors of this year's workshop included the Colorado State Forest Service, the Colorado Geographic Alliance, Project Learning Tree, the Coalition for the Upper South Platte and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

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