Students Test Plant Life Growing on Chared Remains of Devastating Cocos Fire Land

Southern California students have begun using burn areas like the Cocos Fire land to test the affects of fire on the ecosystem. 

Biology students at California State University San Marcos have began looking at plant life on the acreage around the university, which burned in the Cocos Fire May 2014. 

"It's an ecosystem that has a periodic disturbance and so it's a wonderful opportunity to show the process of disturbance and recovery to students," said Biology Professor George Vourlitis.

Vourlitis said the biology students didn't have to look far to find an out-of-classroom experience. 

Students in the class have started cataloging the plant species in their growth and geographical position on the hillside, comparing the area left to naturally grow back with the areas that were hydroseeded. A hydroseed is a plant seed and mulch mixture that promotes growth. 

Students also compared a north-facing slope versus a south-facing slope to see how weather elements affect the plants' regrowth. 

As they work, students collect samples to take back to the lab. 

Senior biology major Nikki Gordon says she remembers being worried about the college during the fire, but was more concerned about the surrounding homes -- some of which burned to the ground.

"I mean it almost burned down our campus," Gordon said. "Everyone knows about the fire but they don't know about the fact that chaparral naturally regenerates from fires."

Gordon says she never imagined the fire-blackened hillside would turn into an outdoor learning laboratory.

"I didn't know how plants responded to it," Gordon said. "I always kind of assumed that fire was harmful all the time. I didn't realize that plants have adaptations."

Gordon says for her, the class is about more than a hands-on learning experience. 

"I think it's especially enjoyable to come outside and make use of something that was tragic for some people," Gordon said.

Students collected plant and soil samples to test in the campus lab for various factors, including Nitrogen and Oxygen levels.

The Cocos Fire will provide education to students for years to come as the hillside chaparral continues to grow over the next 5 to 10 years.

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