Students catch educational fire

Crew members give depiction of technology used to manage blazes

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— The forest fires that surrounded Steamboat Springs in recent weeks gave students a rare opportunity to explore issues relating to the environment and the efforts required by firefighters and crew members to protect the community from disaster.

Crew members who have worked together on various fires throughout the country gave students a depiction of what technology is needed to manage a fire Monday at the high school.

"All that exposures gives kids some possibilities for their future and to know about people helping with their daily lives," said Cindy Gantick, a Steamboat Springs schoolteacher.

Dave Shreve, a geographic information systems manager for RAM Systems LLC, has been on numerous missions, including the Hinman and Green Creek fires. He demonstrated to students the use of an infrared video camera to map out the hot spots located along the perimeter of a fire.

The video camera, he said, records the highest temperature, so he and his crew can direct a pilot dropping water to the location.

Crew members used GIS to illustrate the progress the firefighters were making on a daily basis. Also, the GIS generated maps were used by firefighters to focus on areas where numerous hot spots still existed.

Gantick asked students basics question to consider when looking at the maps. Students discovered that vegetation and slope were primary factors leading to the rate at which a fire spread.

Maps "help get clarity to a situation. It would take a whole book to describe a map," Shreve said.

David Hammond, a GIS technical specialist, said the maps his crew made helped people better understand the status of the fire.

"It's really reassuring for people to see that map," Gantick said. Gantick, a North Routt resident, experienced the anxiety of having a fire close to home.

Hammond said a fire behavior specialist uses a GIS mapping system to predict how quickly a fire will spread depending on the wind and determines if any structures are going to be threatened before firefighters can get the fire contained.

"This team is incredible. We want people to realize how important it is kids get introduced to (GIS)," said Elizabeth Matlack, project coordinator of the Yampa Valley Community Mapping Program. "We have to find teachers willing to donate their own time."

As a close case study of the team effort to contain a fire, Gantick took a group of North Routt area students to see the incident command center where the firefighters and crew members were based for the Hinman fire about a week earlier.

"We got to see up close the tools that were being used to put the fire out," Gantick said. She said the students were pretty "wide-eyed" and had been concerned about the fire because of the smoke they could see from their homes in the North Routt area.

Gantick said seeing the command incident site in its final phases of the fire was really reassuring to the students.

"For the younger kids, they were really reassured by meeting the people and glad to see the safety (of the operation) and got a good sense of teamwork," Gantick said.

She said it was a great experience for the students to see people from many walks of life working to together to serve the community.

The technology students witnessed being used at the site of the fire and at the workshop gave them a good exposure to how GIS technology can be used in a diverse range of careers.

Shreve told students how he used GIS to help rescue workers clear the debris and find trapped people in the World Trade Center towers and its application for detecting chronic wasting disease in elk.

Many of students who participated had previous experience using GIS.

Jennings Anderson said he wanted to learn more about GIS after mapping a bald eagle habitat for a school project.

Other students also participated in mapping bear habitats on Mount Werner in conjunction with attending the workshop led by crew members.

"Some of these kids their abilities really wowed the instructor," Gantick said.

Matlack said she hopes she can get state support for GIS school programs. "Five years from now it'll be everywhere."

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