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Northern N.M. ranch wants to use wildfire to educate children, people with disabilities

Yurts are surrounded by trees at Collins Lake Ranch on Monday. The ranch is a full-time home for people with disabilities. (Megan Gleason/Source NM)

CLEVELAND, N.M. – Lessons from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire 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.

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

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

Steve Smaby, owner of Collins Lake Ranch, said the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire amplified his ambition to create an environmental learning center. (Megan Gleason/Source NM)

More than 340,000 acres and hundreds of structures in surrounding communities were destroyed by the wildfire. Because of 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.

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 Wi-Fi, 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 who didn’t do well with the change and didn’t understand why they couldn’t come back home.

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire scorched about 150 acres at the Collins Lake Ranch. (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 such as 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.

For more stories from Source New Mexico, visit sourcenm.com.