Field-based Experiential Learning: Humboldt Geography Students, Faculty Explore Firsthand Effects of the Devastating Carr Fire...

On a weekend in late September 2018, more than twenty Cal Poly Humboldt Geography students, led by professors Matthew Derrick and Rosemary Sherriff, hopped in vans for a three-day field study that included an investigation into the impacts of the recent Carr Fire and an exploration natural beauty of Lassen Volcanic National Park. 

The Carr Fire, reported as one of the most destructive fires in California’s history, started on July 23, 2018, near Whiskeytown off Highway 299. Before being fully contained in late August, the conflagration spread nearly 230,000 acres across Trinity and Shasta counties, destroying more than 1,000 residences—mainly in and around west Redding—and claiming the lives of three firefighters. 

On the first day of the field study, the Humboldt geographers met with Tom Garcia, a firefighter at National Park Service, and Eric Knapp, a research ecologist with the US Forest Service. Starting at the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, students listened to Garcia as he discussed the origins of the fire and the damage it inflicted in and around the park. Garcia also explained, through a guided—and nearly off-road—tour of park land impacted by the Carr Fire, the National Park Service’s efforts to ameliorate the worst effects of forest fires through controlled burns. 

After surveying some of the fire’s impacts to the park land, the Humboldt geographers continued with Knapp to examine some of the devastation inflicted on human settlements, including the destruction of homes and human life by what has been reported as the state’s worst-ever fire tornado. According to Knapp, the fire vortex, which claimed the life of Redding-based firefighter Jeremy Stoke, was so unusual that fire ecologists and other experts are still grappling to understand it. 
Students and faculty alike were struck, sometimes on a very emotional level, by the landscapes of destruction they viewed in relatively wealthy neighborhoods located in west Redding at the wildland-urban interface. Fire razed some homes to their foundations while neighboring homes stood seemingly unscathed, leaving an impression of randomness in scorched path. However, as Knapp explained, while a degree of randomness characterized the fire, choices in home building materials, efforts to stave off air flow in and out of houses, relative location vis-à-vis the wildland, and other pertinent variables help explain resultant geographic patterns of destruction and clemency. 

Following their examination of the Carr Fire, the Humboldt geographers traveled out to Lassen Volcanic National Park, where they set up camp for two days. Faculty led a series of explorations, including a hike to the top of Lassen Peak, surveying the natural beauty and wonder found in the park’s landscapes.