New fire ecology scholarship benefits a variety of students

CSU SAFE student at a winter pile burning
Scholarship recipient Spencer Heidepriem burned piles with the Student Association of Fire Ecology organization last winter.

A new scholarship supports students interested in future careers focused on fire ecology and management.

This fall, ten students were recognized as the first recipients of the Class of ’73 Scholarship at the annual Warner College of Natural Resources Scholarship banquet. The scholarship is named for the year a generous alumni donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, graduated. It is awarded to incoming or current Warner College students, and can be renewable for up to four years, with additional one-time scholarships available to current students.

In the college’s fire program, students study the ecological costs and benefits of fire in forests and rangelands, and at the wildland-urban interface where natural areas and development meet. This includes how fire benefits, influences and restores processes and functions across the landscape, and includes social, economic, and physical considerations. The student recipients for this inaugural year approached the topic of fire very differently in their scholarship essays.

Senior Mija Mortell’s initial interest in forestry stemmed from the devastation she felt as a child when her parents cut down a large willow tree in their Colorado backyard. Her studies concentrate on forest biology and looking at how plants react to disturbances like fire and insects. Understanding the before and after effects of fire is something she is interested in at smaller and larger scales, and something she also acknowledged this scholarship addresses.

“Most funding goes to fighting fires after they start,” she said. “This scholarship puts money towards the education of fire that we can apply to future management efforts.”

CSU forestry student looks at Forest Service jobs list
Senior Mija Mortell looks at USDA Forest Service jobs at the Society of American Foresters Convention in October.

Landis Hooper became familiar with fire as it relates to forest management while serving in the military. He became red card-certified to participate in prescribed burns, fires that are intentionally set under certain conditions to produce ecological benefits on the land.

“I’ve always been a pyro,” Hooper admitted. “My interest didn’t start in stopping fire, it was in starting fire.”

He grew up on a farm in North Carolina where they would regularly burn various materials on his family’s property. Hooper added that returning to school after a six-year hiatus has made him think differently about fire.

“I wasn’t educated about fire, because they didn’t happen where I was from,” he said. “I now think about it from a more holistic perspective rather than the skewed view I grew up with.”

Sophomore Isabella Valdez also gained a different perspective about how forests function with fire through CSU’s fire program. The California native said she doesn’t remember how she decided forests were her favorite, but her summer job working for the USDA Forest Service in Grand Lake, Colorado this year validated her decision to leave veterinary school to study forests. While spraying invasive and noxious weeds, she wore hard hats and had to be aware of hazardous and down trees. These were remnants of the pine beetle epidemic that swept through the area’s forests more than a decade ago.

“I remember hearing a tree in the distance fall, and I’d never heard a tree do that on its own before,” she said. “If fires were able to historically happen as they had before fire suppression, the pine beetle outbreak wouldn’t have been as bad as it was.”

She is interested in becoming a silviculturist where the focus is on maintaining the growth, structure and function of forests, or a forest pathologist who studies how the living and non-living aspects interact in these areas.

Student recipients are at different points in their academic careers. They are either beginning to take courses that specialize in their major concentrations or are preparing to enter the workforce. All expressed deep appreciation for this scholarship opportunity.

“It’s great that we have generous alumni that gives back to the students,” Hooper echoed. “I received the first scholarship I ever applied for, and it really helps because you’ll be involved in fire no matter what you do in natural resource fields.”


2019 Class of ’73 Fire Ecology Scholarship Recipients

Nicholas Beith – Forest and Rangeland Stewardship
Alexis Emslie – Rangeland Ecology
Jessica Fagan – Restoration Ecology
Jake Gilmont – Forest and Rangeland Stewardship
Spencer Heidepriem – Natural Resources Management
Landis Hooper – Forest and Rangeland Stewardship
Corey Ledbetter – Natural Resources Management and Forestry
Mija Mortell – Forestry
Breeyn Tighe – Restoration Ecology
Isabella Valdez – Forest and Rangeland Stewardship