Answers from the ashes

Students study damage from the Mount Zirkel Complex, Hinman fires

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— Sophomore and junior biology students from Steamboat Springs High School got a firsthand look at fire ecology on a field trip to the different forest fire spots in the Routt National Forest.

The most attention-grabbing part of last week's trip was a walk through a large stand of trees burned in the Hinman fire this past summer.

"It's a lot cooler than I thought it would be," sophomore Jessica Schlapkohl said while looking at the trees.

The scene left her slightly speechless.

"I don't know, it's just different," Schlapkohl said.

She was standing in a small area of the 31,000 acres that burned in North Routt County over the summer in the Mount Zirkel Complex blazes.

The entire stand was charred black and the ground was a gray mix of soft ash and soil. Most of the trees remained standing but were pure black.

Many had large portions of their trunks burned out from underneath them, waiting for a stiff wind to blow them over.

Despite what looked like complete destruction, new green blades of grass were growing from the ash in some places.

The class of about 25 students spread out in groups of five and explored the burned stand.

A few pulled out worksheets, measured off a small area of the ground and logged observations, but others just wandered around the black forest.

"Usually, it's so jaw dropping that they don't end up doing their sheets," U.S. Forest Service interpretive guide Renne Brousseau said.

Brousseau brought about 120 sophomores and juniors from Lynda Stahl's biology class to the site over the summer.

The trip coincides with the classes' studying of ecology and fire.

Getting into the forest to see the examples of what they are learning is pretty effective, Stahl said.

"We worked on this for a week before we brought classes up here," she said. "It's kind of fun as a teacher to hear them say, 'Oh, this is what we are talking about.'"

The students explored two different sites.

In the morning, they visited the South Fork burn, near Three Island Lake trailhead, south of Seedhouse Road. That burn is about two years old.

They also traveled to a burned a portion of the Routt Divide Blowdown.

It helps students understand the regeneration that happens after a fire, Brousseau said.

The regrowth is significantly there, and the students noted the vegetation on their worksheets.

"I thought it would be all black," sophomore Chris Lightner said. "But I guess it is a couple years old."

In the afternoon, the students were driven to the burned stand from the Hinman fire, near Seedhouse Campground.

For the Forest Service, the field trip is part of its interpretation program.

The program's goal is to teach the public about the Routt Divide Blowdown, a bark beetle epidemic in the Routt National Forest and forest fire and regeneration.

"Interpretation is one of the processes we use to help people understand the natural world," Forest Service spokeswoman Diann Pipher said.

Before the Routt Divide Blowdown, where millions of trees were blown over in a freak windstorm in 1997, Yampatika did interpretation for the Forest Service in Steamboat Springs.

After the blowdown, the Routt National Forest received funding to teach residents and visitors about the blowdown.

In time, that expanded to cover a spruce beetle epidemic and forest fires.

"The more people understand about the land, the more they respect it and take care of it," Pipher said. "Also, the more they will understand our management of the land."

The Forest Service mans information booths for the public through the program and works with school districts in Routt County to help teach children about natural systems.

For the students in Stahl's biology class last week, the Forest Service's interpretation program aided part of their curriculum.

"They are taking a test next week," Stahl said. "So they need to know this stuff."

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