Nature of the Beast: Taming Wildfires Across the Continent

This article was first published in the Spring 2014 print edition of UConn Magazine. To read more stories like this, visit s.uconn.edu/spring 14 or download UConn Magazine’s free app for tablet devices.

Renshaw stands on the bulldozer line, preparing a back burn to fend off the Big Sur/Basin Complex  Fire in the Ventana Wilderness of Southern California in 2008.

Lt. Christopher Renshaw ’01 (CANR), ’07 MS stands on the bulldozer line, preparing a back burn to fend off the Big Sur/Basin Complex Fire in the Ventana Wilderness of Southern California in 2008.

Lt. Christopher Renshaw ’01 (CANR), ’07 MS spent much of his youth in the forests of upstate New York’s Adirondack Park, the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States. Going on to earn a bachelor’s degree in wildlife management and a master’s degree in natural resources from UConn, he now serves as a firefighter and EMT on the Storrs campus. Each year during peak fire season – from about May to October – Renshaw also travels throughout North America fighting wildfires with the U.S. Forest Service.

1. How did you first get interested in firefighting?
My grandfather was a volunteer firefighter in upstate New York when I was growing up. Then, in 1988, I was watching on a small black-and-white television set as the Yellowstone fire unfolded on the nightly news. I was hooked from that moment on, fascinated by what the fire was doing, how the wildlife was reacting, and the army of firefighters who were thrown headlong into the fray. I decided it was what I wanted to do.

2. When did you start fighting fires?
My first wildland fire was in 2000. I had kind of geared myself up by studying natural resources, forestry, and wildlife as a profession.

3. Why did you choose UConn?
I met somebody who had a significant role in my life, Dr. Tom Abbott [now assistant-professor-in-residence in molecular and cell biology at UConn]. He kind of steered me along and influenced me. I ended up going with him to Alaska, to a small village called Kotzebue, and I spent a summer with him up there. He really opened my mind to all the possibilities that a young guy could have working with natural resources. I came to UConn because Tom was finishing his Ph.D. there, and I saw him as a role model.

4. Why did you decide to study wildlife management? Was that part of you wanting to become a firefighter?
That was definitely part of it. One of the things I learned early on in studying natural resources is that everything’s connected. There are so many interrelationships between the disciplines of forestry, wildlife, soils, fisheries – you name it. That ended up becoming the foundation for how I view wildfire and fire ecology now. If you were just a basic firefighter, you wouldn’t have the appreciation for, or the ability to really see, how specific tactics affect [wildfire] suppression.

5. What is fire ecology?
It’s the science of understanding the role that fire has had in the world’s ecosystems through evolution. … Fire has been on this planet since this has been a planet with an atmosphere, and it’s the only planet that we know of that has fire. It has shaped many of our ecosystems – our vegetation, our animal species. In the last hundred years, we’ve seen a great influx of fire because of some of the misconceptions we’ve had as human beings about fire’s role in the ecosystem. In modern society, we usually view fire as an enemy – something that should not be allowed to exist freely, something that needs to be completely managed and contained. That was never its role. … Some of the severity and size of the wildfires that we’re seeing now on the national news is because of those policies of trying to overmanage fires, and not allowing it to exist in its natural ecosystem.

140320b440

6. How do you strike a balance between allowing a fire to run its natural course and preventing it from doing too much damage?
You have the ability to choose the tactics – there are different fire suppression and management styles. But when you’re on the ground, and your mission is to protect property or life, you really don’t get to have those choices. You have to put the fire out. The fire service has its priorities, and No. 1 is safety.

7. Last year, we were reminded of how dangerous firefighting is when 19 of Arizona’s Granite Mountain Hot Shots died near Yarnell, Ariz. Did you know the firefighters who died?
The wildland firefighting community is pretty small – people know each other. The crew that I’m on had the distinct privilege of working alongside the Granite Mountain Hot Shots in 2011. When this whole episode unfolded last summer, it really struck home. Seeing familiar faces on the television, knowing what difficult choices they faced, and then seeing the end result – it was a big weight to carry.

8. How do you assess the risks when you’re going in to fight a fire?
It’s definitely a challenge. … There are moments in this career when you question the sanity of it. But the reward in doing it greatly outweighs some of the risk. The risk is always there.

9. You’ve fought fires throughout the continental U.S. and Canada. What’s it like traveling far from home to fight a fire?
That’s part of the adventure. You get flown into these beautiful, remote places, and essentially camp and fight fire along the way.

10. What’s the greatest reward of fighting fires for you?
The real-time problem solving. I honestly love having a situation or an issue in front of me, and having to solve it with what tools I have, in a given amount of time, for a desired outcome. It’s the MacGyver feeling.