You don’t need to go to the movies to see superheroes in the South Cariboo.
Nearly a year after the start of the destructive 2017 wildfires, students from local elementary schools were told they could be superheroes as well and help save the planet by planting trees.
Not only did they quickly get shovels in the ground, their hands dirty and trees planted, they also decided to name the trees with the first one of the day being adorned with the moniker “Todd.”
“I thought it was really magical for us to plant the trees and kinda be the hero for the day, to get trees growing again there where it’s really burned,” says Michelle Lang, one of the students in attendance.
The idea for students to go plant trees was the brainchild of grade 7 students Leon Meili and Ethan Hindmarsh. They, along with their leadership class at Horse Lake Elementary School, got the ball rolling. The project ultimately saw students from all elementary schools across the South Cariboo partake.
Leon Meili (left) and Ethan Hindmarsh, the brains behind the project, pose for a picture while at the plant-site. Lisa Pugh photo.
“I thought it was probably like the best idea I’ve ever heard and it was really nice of them to think of it and help the environment and the community,” says Lang, who’s part of the leadership class. “I knew how it looked back there and I was excited [that], in a few years, that it would look nice again.”
Many of the students had been personally affected by the wildfires. Horse Lake Elementary School started the school year a week late due to some students being evacuated and the elementary school itself being on evacuation alert.
Meili says that was one of the reasons he and Hindmarsh wanted to do the planting. He says his teacher, Lisa Pugh, started making phone calls after they shared their idea.
“It was extremely emotional for the kids and the staff when we got back [after the fires], as it was for everyone, but that was really heartfelt that they wanted to do,” says Pugh. “This is something that they feel would give them some healing, some peace and a way to give back.”
In February, she contacted Cariboo Regional District Area G director Al Richmond with the idea and with the help of many others started working on it.
Word spread quickly to the other schools. First Mile 108 Elementary, then 100 Mile Elementary before Lac la Hache, Eliza Archie and Forest Grove also wanted to join in. The trees were to be planted in the greenbelt surrounding the 108, but that couldn’t accommodate the now nearly 800 to 900 students. So ultimately they decided they would send smaller groups of students from each of the schools, most of them sending about 50 to 100 students, according to Pugh.
Elizabeth Pete, a Canim Lake First Nations elder, speaks to students about the history of the area.
The first thing on the schedule for students was a welcome by a Secwepemc elder who shared some of the history of the area. Beside the planting, students were also treated with lectures from local experts on grasslands and fire ecology.
Pugh says she thinks the students will respect the land a lot more if they’re connected with it.
The area where the students have planted trees will be restored closer to what it was like historically, says Richmond.
That means the trees won’t be quite as dense, making it better for recreation and more fire safe.
They’re also looking to use the area for some demonstrations, such as how to burn piles safely, says Richmond, as well as using fire to manage the forest as it was done historically.
“Engaging kids is the beginning. It’s the foundation. They’ll go home and say ‘well I did this today’ and hopefully that’ll spin off as a positive to other people in the community and say ‘yeah, we’re moving forward,’” he says, adding that he was very pleased. “You don’t see anyone on their phones. They’re out doing something with their friends and they’re out in fresh air. A good overall experience overall.”
Cheyanne Hibbs and Jake Millar from Mile 108 Elementary work together to plant a tree
Richmond says he brought a thousand trees to be planted with forestry bringing some more.
That left Meili and Hindmarsh a little disappointed.
“I was hoping there would be a little bit more planting,” says Meili.
For them, they want to heal things, says Pugh.
“I think in the end it’s going to be a legacy project where we do this every year because there are thousands of hectares that could be tree planted.”
Students, volunteers and teachers stand amidst slash piles while getting ready to plant some trees
For Pugh’s class, despite the massive achievement, they’re still working on other projects. Next, they’re collecting hundreds of soup cans and spraypainting them with flames. They’ll then be handing them out for free to people to use as ashtrays in their cars because the cans perfectly fit inside a cupholder, says Pugh.
“Again it’s just another way for us to try and take control. We know cigarettes are often the cause of fires and it’s just such an easy one.”
For Pugh, as much as anyone else, the tree planting carried some emotions.
“Everybody wants to heal and everybody wants to make the Cariboo beautiful again. We all do. I grew up here I was born here. It’s a real emotional thing for me. I wanna make it nice again,” says Pugh with a tremble in her voice.
The project was made possible with the help of Roserim Nursery, High-Tech Water, West Fraser, the volunteers from the 108 Fire Department and the Greenbelt Commission, Kristy Iverson and the teachers who came out.