When she was only 16 years old, University of Minnesota Crookston Senior Desariah Santillanez experienced the loss of her northern Colorado home to wildfire. She remembers going to let the horses out and looking around to see fire on every side. She considered for a moment it might mean the end of her life, when suddenly she heard the question, “Do you want to die knowing your last action was giving up?” Her answer was a resounding “no” and with it, she ran for her life.
Surviving the trauma of the fire has had consequences, the result of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When she decided to major in natural resources at the University of Minnesota Crookston, she enrolled in a forestry course requiring she take part in a prescribed burn. Her professor was willing to waive her participation under the circumstances, but Santillanez could not live with the idea of being an exception, so she decided she had to try.
With assistance and encouragement along with the right training, Santillanez was able to overcome the fear and serve on a U.S. Forest Service fire crew in northern California in 2016 and 2017. “I had difficulty talking about my experience, but when you work on a fire crew, it isn’t fair to your crew to keep an experience like I had a secret,” she says. “You just can’t be selfish on a job like that.”
Working on California’s Feather River Ranger District in the Plumas National Forest for the U.S. Forest Service wasn’t easy. “My first fire was rough for me personally, and it took place on some of the roughest terrain I have ever seen,” she recalls. It also opened the way for her to end her fear of fire.
When it came time for the prescribed burn in her class in ecological restoration, this experienced young firefighter carried the drip torch leading the way; something she couldn’t have imagined when she first started at the U of M Crookston.
Santillanez has learned a lot about herself and a lot about fire. “After a few fires, I started to see that although still unpredictable, fire has a behavior and the more you know, the better you understand it,” she explains. “I might be more cautious because of my experience and because of that I know when you are dealing with fire you cannot be complacent.”
After working with the Forest Service, Santillanez learned firsthand that you can always give more even when you think you can’t, and in order to get better at anything, you have to keep going.
It turns out her forestry class has been a favorite of Santillanez.
“The faculty at the University of Minnesota Crookston have had a great influence on me and on my future. Associate Professor Phil Baird has been a catalyst for overcoming my fear of fire,” she says. “He was with me on my first burn, and he was always believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. Professor John Loegering makes you work for your grades and his classes are great preparation for working in the wildlife field. Something I have truly come to appreciate.
“Associate Professor Matt Simmons is a great teacher and the kind of person you never want to let down,” Santillanez continues. “He makes you want to work hard. And, Professor Dan Svedarsky has so much knowledge; you come to respect deeply his vast experience and countless contacts.”
Following graduation, Santillanez will head home to visit family and celebrate her college graduation with them. Then, she will head back up north to Bismarck, N.D., to work as a game management assistant for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
Santillanez has learned a lot about living already and is prepared to take on whatever challenges life has in store. The only direction she is prepared to go is forward.