Ashes to Education

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Some of the students who participated in an October outdoor learning program. (Photo by Sebastian Sanders)

In Greek Mythology, a Phoenix is a long-lived bird that is cyclically regenerated or born again. Associated with the sun, a Phoenix obtains new life by rising from the ashes of its predecessor. In Kootenai Country Montana, our families and community have been doing just that. Noble souls will rush to the aid of a family member in distress at any cost. Sincere and caring community members, professionals and volunteers will fight at the drop of a hat to protect our local communities and their outlying regions from forest and structure fire. And this is how it should be.

In the aftermath of the 2017 fires, we tally more than 85,000 acres on the Kootenai National Forest burned, the highest number of acreage recorded torched since the fires of the 1930s. All of us knew someone directly effected by one or more of our local fires.

Fire was omnipresent in Northwest Montana. And therein lay a Western Larch-golden opportunity for educating our local youth. There are always more challenges than meet the eye in setting up youth outdoor education programs, but this year they were multiplied but the long exhausting fire season, and the scarcity of knowledgeable instructors and volunteers. We were all on fires.

At first light, the chilly early autumn temperatures force a layer of mist to rise off Alvord Lake. A stiff wind blows yellow-toned leaves of cottonwood, birch, mountain maple and nine-bark shrub almost horizontally. The field skills scavenger hunt prizes are hidden now, masked with mossy oak camouflage duct tape and stashed under conks, in pileated woodpecker holes, on overhanging limbs, and off unoccupied wood duck nest boxes. The program for the Libby High School biology classes of Renee Rose and Neil Fuller, and sponsored by Montana Wilderness Association, commenced on Oct. 3 despite obstacles.

The theme for this two-day program focused on how to use your observation skills, be prepared, be firewise and to learn a few lessons from this year’s fire situation. At station one, Jon Jeresek, one of our local avalanche experts, taught how to spot and prepare for avalanches and how to operate and find transceivers and transponders in the field.

At station two, we were very fortunate to be able to get the Firewise Trailer, which is shared by the DNRC and the Forest Service. Even luckier, we were able to get Alan and Lisa Osborn’s help with the trailer, as well as that of Beau Macey. Alan recorded hundreds of hours in air attack operations this year, and Lisa and Beau worked lengthy hours in fire support roles.

Station three, manned by this columnist, was a somewhat mobile station concerned with using one’s powers of observation, animal tracking and sign, birding, tree identification, aging and tree diameters.

As always, it takes some golden hearts to help support and carry out these programs. Thanks to Renee Rose, the adult advisor lady, the bus drivers and teacher Neil Fuller. Also to Edwina Smith who helped with posters and where needed at stations, and Ian Leigh of the Forest Service, who helped us out with some cool poster selections.

Brian Baxter is a forester, wildlife researcher, educator and author of articles on the outdoors. He has worked in the area for decades and teaches a variety of outdoor educational programs for various local groups.

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