Among the charred remnants of forestland where the Horse Prairie Fire burned in the late summer, middle school students planted tiny young fir trees.
The 12 sixth- through eighth-grade students from Roseburg’s Cobb School have been studying the area’s soil this year to learn if the fire had made the burned soil hydrophobic — unable to hold onto water. Hydrophobic soil can cause water to run off, leading to soil erosion, soil buildup in streams and potential landslides.
The students had collected data on the soil at three different sites where the Horse Prairie Fire burned, all on private property about 10 miles west of Riddle owned by Emily and Rob Schornstein. On Monday, the students returned to replant about 500 trees on the Schornstein’s property to thank them for the use of their land.
Four of the students, seventh-grader Nicholas Brown and eighth-graders Evan Lafata, Stella Darling and Jayden Schumaker, are planning to write a report about the data, which will be entered in the GLOBE Virtual Science Symposium, an international environmental science competition, sponsored by NASA and the National Science Foundation.
“Some of the sites we’ve seen were completely burned, except for the moss that has come back after the fire,” Lafata said.
Darling said the fire left air pockets in the soil, meaning the students had to watch their step or their feet would fall right through. She said other parts were very rocky and difficult to dig into in order to plant the new trees.
The students worked in pairs and used a dibble bar to make a hole, which they filled with a fir seedling.
Emily Schornstein said while firefighters did a good job of keeping her home and structures safe, the fire burned through much of the rest of her 152 acres. She said she had asked the Bureau of Land Management for help, as the Schornsteins are both retired and the trees they lost were not big enough to sell, and the agency connected them with the Cobb School.
“I’m very impressed with the kids and teachers that came out and very grateful for their willingness to give back to our community and their desire to help out,” Schornstein said. “The fire was hard and it was devastating for us out here but there’s been so many good things out of it. People have been so kind and helpful and we feel blessed by it.”
Schumaker said he and a group of students visited the burned area three times to test both the unburned soil and the burned soil to see if the fire had made it hydrophobic.
The group put one tin can inside of another, fill them with soil and water and record how long it took for the water to filter through.
Brown said the soil wasn’t as hydrophobic as they expected, except for soil found at the third site.
“The water went faster through it than in the unburned soil,” Brown said.
At the beginning of June, the four students will be traveling to Bozeman, Montana to present their findings at a symposium.
Barbara Brodsky-Post, a science teacher at the Cobb School, is leading the students in the study.
She said each year she likes to have the students conduct a study that has to do with a local issue, like wildfire. She said judges from around the world will rate the students’ work.
“They did a terrific job,” she said.