Through a happy accident involving a pair of high-attitude balloons, Clark Magnet High School students have detailed images of the mountains charred by the 2009 Station Fire, allowing them to study how well the area is recovering.
The group, working with robotics and engineering teacher David Black, is chasing a $10,000 prize awarded by the Lexus Eco Challenge by studying how invasive plant species put down roots in the wake of forest fires.
Team 696, the school's robotics team, will tap into data collected by cameras on high-altitude balloons Clark students launched in 2012 and 2013 that captured photographs of the mountains from a distance.
The two balloons that students launched one year apart coincidentally secured images of the same land area after reaching upward of 100,000 feet over the Angeles National Forest.
"We realized we can analyze the images and see where the forest has grown [and where it is] having trouble to regrow," said Clark senior Saikiran Ramanan.
Since embarking on the project in the last few weeks, the students have visited Deukmejian Wilderness Park to water 37 recently planted big-cone spruce trees.
Ramanan said he learned from park officials that the forest is recovering better than expected.
However, several invasive species have also cropped up, including tamarisk, tree tobacco, castor bean and Spanish broom plants. On the same day they watered the trees, the team weeded these plants.
In the coming days, team members will create a database of invasive plant species common in Southern California and post it on their website, www.eco.team696.org.
The team has also visited Dunsmore, Lincoln and La Crescenta elementary schools to speak with younger students about the danger of fire.
"We want to spread awareness," Saikiran said. "Fire's really a tool. It's not meant to be played around with."
By Oct. 17, the team will learn if it has won the $10,000 prize, making them eligible to compete in a second challenge for a chance to win an additional $30,000 in January.
Follow Kelly Corrigan on Twitter: @kellymcorrigan.