The Webber Fire that consumed more than 4,000 acres east of Pine earlier this month was an in-your-face reminder for all Rim country residents.
One of those who saw the learning opportunity inherent in an event that unfolded along the Mogollon Rim was Roger Rohrbach, a fourth-grade teacher at Payson Elementary School. Rohrbach, a former firefighter himself, used the fire's presence as an opportunity to teach his students about fire, forest health, and related topics.
"It kind of crossed into science and we talked about the fire triangle and the kids have some neat drawings of it," Rohrbach said. "You know, there's fuel, heat and oxygen, and if you remove any of the three ingredients, the fire goes out."
Many Rim country children found the fire an unnerving experience.
"You could see smoke and stuff every time we came off the bus stop," Nicole Devaney said. "I was afraid it would get us because we have four or five trees in our yard."
But putting the event in an educational context helped.
"I learned the three ingredients to make a fire," Farrah Wilson said. "And to get the fire out you have to use water or any possible thing you can to stop one of them."
Rohrbach's class also used the school's computer lab to dress up letters they wrote to the firefighters thanking them for their efforts. PES and, in fact, all Payson schools, are emphasizing technology in the classroom.
"We wanted to get the message out that we were aware, we were concerned and we were thankful," Rohrbach said. By using the computer lab, the students were able to customize their letters with graphics, backgrounds, special fonts and other techniques.
Dorothy McKim is the technology teacher at PES.
"Basically, I teach them all the technology things, and then their regular teacher takes care of the creativity," McKim said.
More writing assignments like the letters Rohrbach's students wrote are being accomplished with the aid of computers.
PES students have a regular weekly session in the computer lab, but Rohrbach, who also has several computers in his classroom, tries to get extra lab time for his students when he can.
"I want to get them as much hands-on computer time as I can," he said. "I get an idea for science or social studies and Ms. McKim helps me pinpoint how to achieve what we'd like to do."
One of the primary objectives is to get children to appreciate the computer as a tool for learning rather than just a fancy toy.
While the PES lab has up-to-date PCs, the school also kept the older Apple 2s for kindergarten and first-grade students to use.
"The keyboards are small and they can't hurt these Apples," McKim said. "I have a whole closet full of instructional discs for learning their letters and their numbers."
While students come to McKim with a wide range of computer experience, one thing many have never mastered is the keyboard.
"The Apples have no mice, so a lot of them come in and go, ‘Where's my mouse?' McKim said. "‘You don't have a mouse. You have to use the keyboard.' Some are so used to using a mouse, they can't use a keyboard. It's a total shock to take away their mouse."
What the students learn at the elementary level is carried over to the middle and high schools.
"We teach the basics here and then when they get to middle school, they go farther on, and by the time they get to the high school, you have kids that just excel," McKim said.
Both Rohrbach and McKim believe the combination of real-life learning opportunities and computer technology creates a high level of energy in the classroom.
"You can write about anything, so if you can pick a subject that is exciting for them, they'll learn that much better," Rohrbach said.
"I have almost instant attention when they come down (to the lab)," McKim said. "They know they're going to learn something they're going to be using, that they're going to need."