One way to grasp the destructive depth and breadth of a massive forest fire is to try helping the ground it ravaged to heal.
Almost 3,000 Mesa Boy Scouts were learning from that experience Saturday as they tackled an environmental restoration project on a stretch of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests torched by last summer’s Rodeo-Chediski wildfire.
Spreading out over a roughly eight-square mile area in and around the northern Arizona’s Mogollon Rim communities of Clay Springs, Pinedale and Linden, the Scouts and their leaders labored from morning until evening.
They thinned charred trees, cleared away burned stumps and debris, stacked tons of loose timber for hauling, and spread seed and straw to aid resurgence of forest grass.
But even with the sizable work force, "it seems like we’ve only a put a dent in it," said Scout Greg Safsten, 15, looking out at the vast stretch of damaged terrain.
His fellow Mesa Scout Troop 544 members — Trent Cook, 15, Braden Giles and Dallin Kanaga, both 14 — nodded in agreement.
By mid-day their crew, like all the others, was smeared with some of the soot
and dirt from the ashes and loosened soil left across almost 470,000 acres by the largest wildfire in the state’s history.
The arduous task was giving the boys — most 11 to 15 years old — a glimpse of how the aftermath of the blaze will be with their generation throughout their lifetimes.
Kevin Allen, 15, and Ryan Murphy, 15, of Troop 853, talked of returning to the area in a few years to see if their work restored the once tall and thick stands of ponderosa pine.
"It will be more like decades before it ever gets back to that," responded fellow troop member Chris Farris, 17.
The work area included a seven-acre tract in Pinedale owned by Mesa resident Scott Giles and his family.
They lost a brand-new motor home in the fire, which stripped their land of foliage.
"The ground was so totally covered with gray and white ash. It looked like it had snowed,’’ recalled Giles’ 17-year-old daughter Shannon.
Scott Giles is executive director of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire Recovery Foundation, which led sponsorship of the Scout project.
The work helped prepare the ground for Trees for the Rim, a program that will aim to replant trees on up to 8,000 acres of fire-damaged Mogollon Rim area in the next five years, he said.
The foundation will try to raise almost $1 million to assist that project, as well as another $1 million to help at least 15 families in the area rebuild homes lost in the wildfire.
Companies in the Rim country and the East Valley are pledging support of the effort, Giles said.
"The kids who worked here today are getting to be a part of all that,’’ he said. "It’s a great lesson for them in helping the community.’’