Winter 2018

Fighting fear, fighting fire

Desariah Santillanez at the Pankratz Prairie prescribed burn
Photo by Terry Tollefson

Desariah Santillanez was a teenager in 2011 when her northern Colorado home was destroyed in a wildfire. Her family escaped, but they lost everything.

As a senior at the University of Minnesota Crookston (UMC) studying natural resources with an emphasis in wildlife management, Santillanez never thought she’d engage with fire again. But a required forestry course involved taking part in a prescribed burn. Still traumatized, Santillanez pleaded with her professor to waive her participation. He did. “But that put a knife in my heart. I didn’t want to be an exception, so I decided to try,” she says.

With training and assistance, Santillanez overcame her fear and went
even further, joining a U.S. Forest Service fire crew in northern California in 2016 and 2017. “I didn’t want to be owned by my demons,” she explains.

Santillanez realized she enjoyed the challenge of firefighting and may continue to do it after graduation. Her goal, though, is to work as a game warden.

She’s grateful for UMC’s applied education and the Andrew and Elmer Wardeberg and Dowell scholarships, which helped her battle her fire phobia and stay on track. “The classes are so hands-on,” Santillanez says. “It’s a huge plus for me to be able to use what I’m learning in my future career.”