Northern NM ranch wants to use wildfire to educate children, people with disabilities

By: - September 16, 2022 4:30 am

Clouds gather over the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon burn scar in Mora County on Monday, Sept. 12. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

CLEVELAND, N.M. – Lessons from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon wildfire could soon be taught to people with disabilities and students at a ranch that was saved by fire suppression efforts.

Collins Lake Ranch, a 300-acre property surrounded by forest in Mora County, is a full time home for people with disabilities and their coaches.

Yurts are surrounded by trees at Collins Lake Ranch on Monday, Sept. 12. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

Steve Smaby, the owner of the facility, said the fire scorched about 150 acres, but the ranch was spared from severe fire damage due to backburns lit on the outskirts of the property.

Steve Smaby is the owner of Collins Lake Ranch. Photographed on Monday, Sept. 12. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

“In my view, that saved the place,” he said.

More than 340,000 acres and hundreds of structures in surrounding communities were destroyed by the wildfire. Due to the effort by fire crews, no facilities at the ranch were damaged and other than some flooding and road damage, the ranch got off fairly unscathed.

Flooding has created silt and clogged up a culvert by a road at Collins Lake Ranch. Pictured on Monday, Sept. 12. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

Now, Smaby wants to use this as a learning experience for children and people with disabilities. He said the wildfire amplified his ambition to create an environmental learning center.

“They can see what fire is. And now we’ve got a perfect example. Here’s a place where the fire burned. Here’s where it didn’t,” Smaby said. “It’s a learning lab.”

During the pandemic when schools were shut down, Smaby bought WiFi, invited a few teachers up and opened the doors of the ranch for students to learn there. “We really changed some of their lives,” he said.

When the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire roared through the north over the summer, it threatened this operation. Everyone on the ranch evacuated in April, Smaby said. This was costly and especially difficult for the residents with autism that didn’t do well with the change and didn’t understand why they couldn’t come back home.

Burnt trees stand around the ranch on Monday, Sept. 12. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

But they did have a home to come back to in May. Not everyone in Mora County could say the same.

Smaby wants to continue building the education focus of the ranch. Soon Collins Lake will offer outdoor classes once a week for students and children, Smaby said, with activities like seeding and fire education. He said other groups have also been coming out, too, like church or environmental groups.

“Every kid ought to be able to spend some time outside,” he said.

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Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. Other work has appeared under the New Mexico Press Association as well as in the Independent, Gallup Sun and Silver City Daily Press.