Seven months ago, the U.S. Forest Service ignited a fateful prescribed burn that, within a matter of weeks, merged with a nearby sleeper fire to become the biggest wildfire in New Mexico’s history. The Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon blaze burned some 342,000 acres, leaving scars on both the landscape and its people, including countless school-age children. 

To help students cope, the Mora Independent School District organized a holistic learning program that teaches them about the forests where they live and how plants and animals adapt after a catastrophe.

“Kids are so resilient,” said Tracy Alcon, the principal at Mora Elementary. “But they’re only as resilient as their environment,” she added, referring to the shocks born by the fire. Many families evacuated several times during the summer months, saw their homes ruined by floods or lacked water for drinking, cooking or bathing when their private wells were destroyed. 

That turmoil, said Marvin MacAuley, superintendent of the Mora school district, has led to an increase in behavioral problems as children try to process what happened. One of the district’s responses has been to implement “expeditionary learning,” a model that included a Nov. 4 field trip to Collins Lake Ranch, a nonprofit for people with disabilities. It was a means of shifting the kids’ focus from the “gloom and doom of the fire” to simply having fun, MacAuley said.  

Searchlight New Mexico joined the 67 first- and second-grade children on their excursion, this one held in conjunction with the Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute at New Mexico Highlands University and Collins Lake Ranch. Bundled up against the crisp fall air, the kids went on treasure hunts and made “seed bombs” of soil, clay and native grass seeds, jubilantly tossing them into the ponderosa pines or bringing them home to plant around their houses. Mora schools plan to make weekly trips like these over the course of the year.

“The land is healing,” Alcon said of the morning, “and so are we.”

Great Pyrenees dogs greet children as they get off the school bus and make their way to a clearing at Collins Lake Ranch in Cleveland.

Aleeyah Martinez, Rosaleigh Hare and Brianne Martinez, all 7, put their hands in a mixture of soil, clay, native grass seeds and water to make “seed bombs.”

Lauren Rivera and Aaron Villa, both 7, roll seed bombs in their hands.

Kids warm their muddy hands around a campfire accompanied by Dillon Alexander, an undergrad in Highlands University’s Department of Forestry.

Santiago Maestas, 8, launches a newly formed seed bomb into the forest at Collins Lake Ranch.

Brayden Brito, 6, rolls seed bombs to take home and plant in the burn scar behind his family’s home. The wildfire “almost burnt our house,” he says.

Sara Villa spends the morning at Collins Lake Ranch with her sons Cash, born during the wildfire, and Aaron. The family is still waiting for a new mobile home to be delivered after theirs was destroyed by floods in July.

Brayden Brito, 6, outlines the ribs of different types of leaves in his coloring book.

Brandon Bolsinger, 6, holds a charred tree branch found during the treasure hunt.

Children explore the forest, looking for flowers, foliage and charred wood from the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire.

Alicia Inez Guzmán

Raised in the northern New Mexican village of Truchas, Alicia Inez Guzmán has written about histories of place, identity, and land use in New Mexico. She brings this knowledge to her current role as education...