Rebirth and recovery

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Nearly a decade after the Cerro Grande fire, students revisit the Quemazon Trail

By Jennifer Garcia

Though it may seem grim at the time, death and destruction can sometimes yield renewal and rebirth. Such is the case for vegetation lost in the Cerro Grande Fire.


Next year will mark the 10-year anniversary of the fire. The devastation caused by the fire is not something that Los Alamos County residents will soon forget. It ravaged vegetation and destroyed homes, sent residents fleeing to Santa Fe and the surrounding areas in search of shelter and blew across Los Alamos Canyon, leaving behind a charred, naked landscape.

Post-fire recovery was a role that many Los Alamos residents embraced. Groups of people went out to one of the areas most affected by the Cerro Grande fire — the Quemazon Nature Trail and began clearing and rebuilding it. Once a popular trail used by many Los Alamos residents, the trail was devastated by the fire.

Following the disaster, a Nature Trail Guide was published by Los Alamos Public Schools, Los Alamos County and the volunteer task force, outlining not only the history of the Quemazon Trail, but also the effects the fire had on the area.

“When the Cerro Grande Fire blew across Los Alamos Canyon on May 10, 2000, the flames exploded into the tops of the pines. The resulting crown fire left behind a black forest and a thick layer of ash covering the ground,” the Quemazon Nature Trail Guide said.

Adults were not the only ones involved in post-fire recovery of the area, however. “Searching for a way to involve their sixth-grade students in post-fire recovery, Mountain Elementary teachers Laura Patterson and Gerry Washburn began the rebuilding of the nature trail in September 2000. With the assistance of the Volunteer Task Force, Mountain sixth-grade students carefully relocated the trail, cleared its debris and constructed rock walls and switchbacks.

In the following years, students planted Ponderosa pine seedlings, aspen trees, native grasses and wildflowers. They improved the trail construction, cleared fallen trees and redeveloped the trail guide to fit the changed landscape, all while studying and monitoring the recovery of the forest.

Los Alamos County officially reopened the Quemazon Nature Trail on May 22, 2004. The reconstruction of the trail by more than 250 Mountain School students is testimony to the power of community service,” the guide further states.

Nearly a decade later, thick grasses cover the once barren mesa and slender wheatgrass as well as foothills brome are visible on the slopes. Aspens have begun to grow from the roots of burned trees and Ponderosa pine saplings planted in 2001 have sprouted, too.

Currently, a new group of sixth-graders is working to update the Quemazon Nature Trail Guide published in 2004.

“They’re looking at how it’s (the area) changed in the last five years,” Los Alamos County Open Space Specialist Craig Martin said. “We’re hoping to rededicate the nature trail and have the new guide ready in May of 2010.”

Martin is working alongside the sixth-graders and the volunteer task force, to help guide the children through their observations of the area and in updating the trail guide. The revision will be done in time for Earth Day next year and will go hand-in-hand with the Pajarito Environmental Education Center’s 2010 Earth Day theme, “Recovery Happens.” “It’s about how a forest comes back after a bad shock,” Martin said.

With about 50 children involved in the project, they began working in October. The children were put into groups and given a copy of the old Nature Guide. They then went to each station listed in the guide and compared what was written five years ago to what they currently observed.

Not only was the project a lesson in observation, but a lesson in science as well as writing. “For science class, they looked at a quarter acre of land and looked at how many seedlings had survived,” Martin explained. “It was 150 seedlings per acre that had survived. They took height measurements of how they’ve grown,” he continued. The height range for the seedlings which had been planted after the fire, was 5-36 inches.

Martin said there are four benefits that children received from the project:

A good science that’s real;

A chance for creative writing and making things adapt to standards;

Getting the chance to see that community service is something valuable for them to participate in; and

A benefit for them and the community.

Instead of just writing down their observations and comparisons, some of the children took a more creative approach and made their observations into poetry:

“Butterflies flutter

Flapping beautiful yellow wings

Leaves and twigs crunch

Under my feet

Seeds from small shrubs

Cling to my socks

Beautiful Quemazon Trail

Your nature lasts forever,” is what one child wrote.

In addition, he said the children also got a lesson in fire ecology, which he was more than happy to teach. Martin, a former educator said he was enthused about working on this project and being out in the field. “I’m an educator before I’m anything else. The best part about the environmental stewardship is that it gets me back into the classroom and out in the field,” Martin said.