From tragedy to bravery

August 31, 2018
Desariah Santillanez in firefighting gear.

When she was only 16 years old, 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—then 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.

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.

When it came time for the prescribed burn in her ecological restoration class, Santillanez carried the drip torch leading the way, something she couldn’t have imagined when she first started at UMC.

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 says. And after working with the Forest Service, she 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.

Santillanez now works in Bismarck, N.D., as a game management assistant for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.