September 17, 2021 | NEWS | By Riley Prillwitz | Photo by Rickki Held

Lately, it has become harder and harder for Coloradans to ignore the growing number of wildfires occurring during the summer months. Smokey haze clouds the view of Pikes Peak and singes the eyes when air quality levels reach unhealthy conditions. In 2020, Colorado recorded the three largest fires in the state’s history.

This intense natural phenomenon is not a one-time occurrence, either. Climate scientists predict growing wildfires are part of climate change and will only continue to increase as conditions get worse. With research and scientific evidence, scientists may be able to better understand the workings of wildfires and how they are impacted by climate change.

Professor of Environmental Science Rebecca Barnes is one scientist committed to finding new answers about wildfires. “The National Science Foundation has awarded Colorado College Associate Professor of Environmental Science Rebecca Barnes and collaborators $844,435 for a project titled ‘Role of Soil Microbiome Resilience in Ecosystem Recovery Following Severe Wildfire,’” said the CC News and Events page. 

Barnes will be working with other research professors from Colorado State University, University of California, Irvine and the U.S. Forest Service as they study soil microbes after severe wildfires to understand their importance in forest recovery. 

“We are interested in understanding the role of the soil microbiome (the community of microbes) in the recovery of trees following severe fire,” Barnes said. “We are using a chrono-sequence of burn piles from 1960 – 2000 (each decade) as a natural experiment to compare revegetation patterns, microbial community, soil chemistry, and carbon cycling in areas of Lodgepole Pine forest that were clear cut [and] burned vs. clear cut.”

The team first met each other on a separate collaborative environmental effort years before, so it seemed natural to Barnes that they come together once again for the grant project. Barnes also had two former CC students working on the beginnings of the project for their senior theses last year.

“We are hoping that by comparing results across this five-decade timeline we can unravel mechanisms controlling forest regeneration,” Barnes said.

As part of the application process, Barnes was required to create a plan for how her research “will make a difference” or create “broader impacts” to show that her project was worth investing in. She quickly came up with the idea of providing a new source publication of their work after realizing that wildfires are almost always reported on daily. This is where the Colorado College Journalism Institute comes in. 

Interim Journalism Institute director and professor Corey Hutchins was approached by Barnes in the fall of 2020 about collaboration. He will lead journalism students through the process of reporting on Barnes’ research process, and ultimately turn it into a learning process during a block course on how to report on severe wildfires. Former CC student Jesse Paul ’14, who now works for The Colorado Sun, will also be a partner in the course. 

“It was a no-brainer,” said Hutchins about the inter-department collaboration. “This is the kind of collaboration across disciplines at Colorado College that I think is really important and will have serious impacts for students in the sciences and journalism classes.” 

Hutchins explained that he has collaborated with Barnes in past class settings, and he knew as soon as she asked him to be a part of her project that it was a great idea. This year, the two will be working together during classes discussing the science around wildfires and climate change, and “in the near future” they will run a class focusing on wildfire journalism and climate change in Colorado.

“What is so great about the Block Plan and having journalism as a minor is that we’ve seen past grads use their minor to inform their major, or used their major to inform their minor,” Hutchins said. “I am really excited to have the Journalism Institute be a part of this [collaboration].” 

Hutchins also hopes that the new class of journalism students is better equipped to report on wildfires after they graduate. In the past, CC journalism students have found themselves on this type of career trajectory. 

Liz Forster ’17 graduated CC with a degree in environmental policy, and shortly after, she started a journalism internship with The Gazette in Colorado Springs. During her time there, she wrote about environmental issues and pushed to become the paper’s first environmental reporter. “I was vocal, and asked to get put on anything,” Forster said. 

During the summer of 2018, Colorado experienced a very active fire season, and Forster took advantage. “I was able to pick out a couple key stories from talking with a few people at an instant command station [in El Paso County].” She argued that she needed to include a discussion of climate change in her work, and ultimately The Gazette agreed. This was something very few other reporters were doing but has increased since Forster’s time as an environmental journalist. 

Though Forster had an environmental policy degree and understood the ins and outs of the topics she was covering, she still felt as though she had to figure out wildfire reporting on her own. Forster said that she definitely would have taken a class tailored to reporting on Colorado wildfires, and it would have helped her through that process. 

“After sophomore year, I was pretty sure I was going to pursue environmental journalism, so a wildfire journalism class would have piqued my interest,” she said. “That being said, you don’t need a science background or environmental background to go into wildfire reporting.”

Barnes and Hutchins have committed to a new research project and learning experience that will change how students view the subjects they are learning. “I think the grant is an acknowledgment of the work the Journalism Institute [has done],” Hutchins said. “This collaboration is really important and I like that it’s across disciplines.”

Environmental studies students, journalism students, and anyone else interested in the topic of wildfires have a lot to look forward to in the coming months and years from Professor Barnes and Professor Hutchins. There may even be a chance that students are able to head out “in the field” and learn about reporting in a hands-on experience, according to Hutchins. 

Hutchins hopes to be able to have students talk with different types of reporters and scientists dealing with wildfires, “and just get out there.” 

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