In Connecticut, a Crew to Respond to Wildfires Thousands of Miles Away

Jul 1, 2014

"It is a chemical process, but it can take on a life of its own and you do feel like you are fighting the time immortal enemy."
Chris Renshaw

One year ago, 19 firefighters from the Granite Mountain Hotshots died battling a wildfire. While Connecticut isn't known for its forest fires, it is known for a surprisingly elite group of firefighters: the Connecticut Wildfire Crew. 

Chris Renshaw has fought fires all over the continent. He's been to California, Montana, Oregon, and last year, even ended up in Canada. 

Renshaw is a a firefighter and an EMT at UConn, but he's also part of the Connecticut Wildfire Crew, a firefighting strike force created by the state in 1978. Every summer, the crew gets phone calls from the U.S. Forest Service to come out West and help tame wildfire, what Renshaw calls "the dragon." "It is a chemical process, but it can take on a life of its own and you do feel like you are fighting the time immortal enemy," he said.

Renshaw said he was inspired to become a firefighter in 1988, when he was watching the Yellowstone Fire unfold on television. "That's what I wanted to do," he said. "There's nothing better than that. Fighting fire out in the middle of Yellowstone. In the crown jewel of national parks. Being part of the army of summer."

Today, that "army of summer" consists every piece of equipment imaginable. Everything from chainsaws and shovels all the way up to 747s dropping flame retardant on burning trees. Renshaw said he is always amazed by the support his wildfire crew gets when it travels out west. "It is something else to see a stretch of school children holding up cardboard signs saying, 'Thank you firefighters,'" he said.

Renshaw cautions against always adopting an adversarial relationship to fire. He studies something called "fire ecology," which looks at the role fire has played through evolution on ecosystems. "We look at fire as an adversary and how we managed it historically has been very different from its intended role in natural ecosystems," Renshaw said. 

In 2011, Renshaw's crew worked alongside the Granite Mountain Hot Shots, a team that lost all but one of its members during the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona in 2013.

Renshaw said this fire season is panning out "to be a pretty active one" and that the Connecticut Wildfire Crew will be ready to deploy at a moment's notice whenever they get a phone call.