Mike McKibbin

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July 18, 2012
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All I need to know about wildfires ...

The rotors didn't spin and the shiny, red helicopter just sat on the runway at the Garfield County Regional Airport on Tuesday.

But it was the center of attention nonetheless for 30 educators from Colorado and New Mexico, who crowded around to learn all they could about how the A Star helicopter, based at the Rifle Interagency Fire Center, is used to help battle wildfires.

They were taking part in the week-long Fire Ecology Institute, held for the 11th year by the Colorado State Forest Service, this year in Rifle and Glenwood Springs.

Teachers in grades 4 through 12 had the chance for hands-on learning in outdoor classrooms that included a recent fire near the Colorado Parks and Wildlife office at the Canyon Creek exit on I-70, and the historic Coal Seam and South Canyon fire sites. Foresters, firefighters, biologists, ecologists and hydrologists oversaw field demonstrations, experiments and activities and educators learned how to build fireline.

"The intensity of this year's fire season highlights the increasing importance of education about wildfire and forest ecology for learners of all ages," said Shawna Crocker, Project Learning Tree coordinator for the Colorado State Forest Service. "Our group this year included three teachers who also happen to be volunteer firefighters."

One of those volunteer firefighters is also the fire chief in Brush, Paul Acosta, who teaches fifth grade to Beaver Valley Elementary in that eastern plains town. Acosta said he was impressed how federal and local agencies work together to battle wildfires.

"It's like the best of both worlds," he added. "It looks like the agencies work together amazingly well."

Acosta said in Brush, local departments work well together, but state and federal agencies are not as involved, since there's much less public land than in the western part of the state.

Alex Bond has taught at the Keystone Science School in Summit County, and his family has a home that was threatened by the devastating Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs this summer.

"Fire is much more personal to me, now," Bond said. "Our family home was about a half-mile from the flames, but that made me want to find out as much as I can about what firefighters are all about, the helicopters and tools they use."

Many children who attend Keystone Science School come from across Colorado, Bond added, and most know someone affected at one time by a wildfire. Learning and then sharing what he and the others learn at the week-long institute is important for that and other reasons, he said.

Bryan Leone is a mechanic for Brainerd Helicopters and answered question after question about the helicopter he helps keep flying.

"These things usually have a half tank to three-quarters of a tank of jet fuel," he said. "That can keep them flying for two-and-a-half or three hours. They burn about 40 gallons an hour."

The copters dip 144- or 180-gallon water buckets into rivers and lakes to help douse flames and are especially useful in high altitude fires, he added. Air conditions due to heat and other factors can prevent the huge Huey helicopters from flying, Leone said.

Federal Interface Program grant funds cover virtually all costs of the workshop for the educators, including materials, field trips, instruction, lodging and most meals at Colorado Mountain College.

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The Post Independent Updated Jul 18, 2012 05:46PM Published Jul 18, 2012 05:42PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.