An inch-high miracle. That’s what ten-year-old Natalie Lehman noticed as she was digging holes to plant new trees in Grand Lake, Colorado in July:  a tiny lodgepole pine growing on its own.

For Lehman, it was a sign mother nature had brought volunteer baby pines to help the human volunteers from Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) as they replanted a forest that had been devastated by the East Troublesome Fire.

“I felt happy because I saw all of the new life coming up and knew that there will be a whole forest again someday,” said Lehman, recalling her time as the youngest volunteer during an MDS Summer Youth Project in Grand Lake.

She was one MDS volunteer of many who, among other tasks, planted 370 trees and flagged 200 tiny trees so people wouldn’t inadvertently pull them up or mow them down. During her time at the project, Lehman learned that in the wake of a wildfire, kids her age can bring new life.

“They can plant flowers, plant trees, pick up debris from the fire, and water new plants,” she said. “It was a lot of fun!”

In the future, Lehman pictures a huge forest like there was before the fire. “It made me feel good to know that other people will benefit from all of the new trees,” she said.

Restoring God’s creation

The wildfire started in the East Troublesome creek, almost 20 miles away from where Lehman and other MDS volunteers were working. Although the wildfire burned almost 200,000 acres in size, 100,000 acres burned in just 24 hours—and those were the acres MDS volunteers were restoring.

“Few wildfires in the history of the United States have burned this quickly,” said Paul Johnson, who co-chairs the MDS Colorado Unit. “It burned so fast even elk and deer could not outrun it, and hundreds were burned alive.” The wildfire generated winds of up to 130 miles per hour/209 kilometers, which added to the destruction.

“Many see MDS as rebuilding structures, but it was impossible to rebuild structures until we addressed the huge destruction of God’s creation,” said Johnson. Stabilizing the watershed and avoiding erosion of the Colorado River headwaters area was one of the objectives of this five-week project. This is the second year of such restoration by the Colorado Unit.

Enthusiasm and purpose

Lehman and other youth, ranging in age from 10 to 27, worked hard. Before they planted new trees, they cleared fire-damaged trees, loading close to 18 tons/16 tonnes of them into a wood chipper. They also spread native grass seed, put the chips over it, and built fencing that stretched for two miles/3.2 kilometers.

Each morning, they did devotions outside the Prayerstream, a program founded by Brenda Fox and housed in a vintage Airstream. The program, which provides a gathering place for hospitality, care, prayer, and meditation, is a passion ministry within the Mountain States Mennonite Conference.

Fox, MDS project manager for the Summer Youth Project in Grand Lake, still gets chills—the “good kind,” she said—when  she thinks about the energy, both spiritual and physical, that the young people brought to the task as they worked near the headwaters of the Colorado River.

“It was amazing to see the land respond to these kids’ energy,” said Fox. “That’s what I see in the next generation that will support MDS.”

In what Fox described as a “resounding chorus of enthusiasm and purpose” from young people, she appreciates the miracles they brought, and the way the very earth seemed to answer them.

“This was nothing short of marvelous,” Fox said. “It just kept delivering beauty and grace and healing.”

Transformational work

Paul Johnson worked alongside the young people. “It was transforming, what we witnessed in this second summer after the fire, as we cleared the debris site along the mighty Colorado River which flows across seven states and brings life to 41 million people,” he said.

Over the weeks they worked, an incredible array of wildflowers began to bloom, “waves of first light blue, then purple, then orange, and red, and the final wave was yellow,” said Johnson. “This all occurred while we were out there working in this creation.”

Johnson believes that God’s creation is designed to renew itself—and the MDS youth volunteers helped nurture that renewal.

“After three weeks of afternoon rains, new lodgepole pines sprouted and grew two to three inches in three weeks—which is unheard of!” he said. “By a decade, we’ll be back in a forest here.”

Often people speak about dragging youth away from their screens and into creation, Johnson reflected. “We didn’t have to drag these young people—they were willing,” he said.

by Susan Kim, MDS writer