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Students Study Local Wildfires

 

Flying W Ranch Entrance *Photo from the Flying W Ranch Foundation*

 

Ten students piled into a Catamount Institute van after school in the chilly mist and headed over to the Flying W Ranch, chattering happily and eating their snacks. Flying W Ranch was a staple of the Colorado Springs community. Originally a working cattle ranch, in the 1950’s they began having Chuckwagon dinners, a Western town which included many historic buildings from the pioneer days, and even a little working train!  Tragically the Flying W Ranch was completely destroyed by the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire and has been closed ever since. So why would we bring students there?

 

Flying W Ranch 2012 after the Waldo Canyon Fire *Photo from the Flying W Ranch Foundation*

The students belong to one of Catamount Institute’s Young Environmental Stewards (YES) clubs. This semester our YES clubs are learning about wildfire ecology. Students learn the basics of what fire needs to exist (heat, fuel, and oxygen) and how we can put a fire out by taking away any one of these elements. We talk about how fire is sometimes good and sometimes bad, depending on how healthy the ecosystem is and what is destroyed. We discuss fuel types, forest health, and mitigation, with the ultimate goal being that students come away understanding how humans affect forests and therefore forest fires, and how forest fires affect us.

Flying W Ranch is an ideal location for us to visit during this semester. Students are able to see and understand the full destruction of a catastrophic crown fire when a forest is not healthy. They measure the distance between unburnt and burnt trees, learning that tree density affects how much a forest fire will destroy, and many groups also make observations about how slope, wind, and weather affect fires. The group last Wednesday was able to see massive sediment basins at the ranch and learned their purpose: the Waldo Canyon fire burned so hot that it destroyed all life, including roots and seed stores, on the hills behind the ranch. Without root systems holding the dirt in place, tons of dirt and gravel washed down from the hills every time it rained. The sediment basins are put in place to slow down the flood of water and catch all the gravel before it covers the city below.

We finished our visit by pulling three massive trash bags full of mullein, an invasive species which often takes over after fires, out-competing native plants. Flying W needs all hands on deck to pull the pesky mullein, and we are planning to take multiple YES clubs there to help out. We may even send some field trips!

In addition to visiting the Flying W burn site, YES club students and their families will have a chance to do fire restoration work with the Rocky Mountain Field Institute Saturday, October 7th. Students will be able to work hands-on to prevent erosion and restore the Black Forest Regional Park ecosystem to health.

When not on field trips or workdays, students learn about wildfires through games and experiments. They must try to protect their “house” (playground structure) from “fire” (balled up newspaper), or must try to not catch on fire themselves in a game where each student is a tree. Students learn how slope and forest density affect wildfires through an experiment using matchsticks, and Colorado College students come to the clubs and teach them about dendrochronology (the study of tree rings).

This semester, we have three brand new YES clubs along with many returning schools! It is shaping up to be a fun and fiery semester.

Blog by: Lydia Ballantine, Catamount Institute YES Club coordinator. Contact Lydia at ballantine@catamountinstitute.org

Photos by: Skye Schelz, Colorado College ’21

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Catamount Institute
740 West Caramillo St.
Colo Spgs, CO 80907
Phone: (719) 471-0910
Fax: (719) 471-0910
Website: www.catamountinstitute.org
Email: info@catamountinstitute.org