TONASKET, Wash. - May 1-7 is Wildfire Awareness Week, and people in north-central Washington's Okanogan Valley can't help but remember the Tripod Fire. It burned in their area for about three months in 2006, scorching 175,000 acres.
It's hard to imagine anything good coming from that blaze, but in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, the lands traversed by the Tripod Fire have become a unique resource for Washington kids. The Tripod Fire Learning Landscape is where about 100 students are monitoring changes as the forest renews itself after the lightning-caused fire.
Program manager Patti Baumgardner with the USDA Forest Service says they're checking plants and trees, water quality and wildlife. In the process, some are discovering a real passion for conservation.
"We've had kids who I think are now interested in careers in conservation, particularly in wildlife biology, who probably didn't even know what conservation was before they started coming. That's really exciting."
The program began five years ago as a way to help local, lower-income kids deal with the devastation caused by the fire and also to boost their science and math skills by working with Forest Service personnel. Students from the Omak, Oroville and Tonasket school districts are part of the summer program.
Baumgardner says it can be hard work for the kids - but it isn't all work.
"A lot of the kids have never been camping, and so the last couple years, we've gone camping with them. They get a chance to learn how to fish and to hear stories around the campfire. It's a new thing for many of them, even though it's a rural area."
The Tripod Fire Learning Landscape program recently received a small grant from the Forest Service, which Baumgardner says will be used to track the kids' progress in school, based on what they've learned in the woods.