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Controlled burn doubles as learning opportunity at East Chapel Hill High

The Chapel Hill Fire Department and the North Carolina forest service did a control burn on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Ryan Pecaut. 

The Chapel Hill Fire Department and the North Carolina forest service did a control burn on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Ryan Pecaut. 

The controlled burn was facilitated by Durham and Orange County Ranger Chris Hirni, who said it was a huge succes.

“Nobody complained about the smoke, which is a miracle in any location,” he said.

Jennifer Roach, assistant district forester with the N.C. Forest Service, said controlled burns happen when the fire is controlled by maintaining a safe flame length and burning against the wind.

“Fire makes things mad, it doesn’t kill anything — especially when it’s controlled,” Roach said.

Ed Kabay, an AP environmental science teacher at ECHHS, said the purpose for the controlled burn was to teach sustainable forest practices.

Controlled fires can do more than just create biodiversity in an ecosystem — they can prevent potentially harmful wildfires, like those that happened in western North Carolina earlier this year.

“As fuels build up, fires get out of control, but areas that are periodically burned keep that from getting out of control,” Kabay said.

Kabay said he hoped the controlled burns would increase the productivity in the undersoil and make better habitats for pollinators and other wildlife. He also said controlled burning leads to healthy ecosystems and forests because the fire burns out the undergrowth and puts nitrogen back into the soil.

“We put too much time putting (fires) out instead of letting them burn controlled,” Kabay said.

To give everyone at ECHHS an opportunity to participate, the burn was open to all students. Kabay said this created an opportunity to explore cross connections beyond the sciences.

“We hope this will lead to other novel and engaging environmental activities at other schools because this is an overwhelming success — something that people often don’t think to do at schools,” Kabay said.

Hirni said the acreage at the school where the controlled burn took place provided an outdoor laboratory to help study the effects of fire on different forest ecosystems.

Kabay said he wanted to collect data from the burn to understand the fire’s effect on the land. Students will also be able to study the land for years to come.

“Going forward, it’s gonna take years to really understand what the effect on this forest community will be because of this burn,” he said.

Kabay said he hoped this opportunity allowed for students who have trouble learning in the classroom to get out and see something happen right on campus.

“It’s really important that we are good stewards of that land and that it doesn’t sit there as an unused resource.”

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