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Saint Mary’s grad uses knowledge of the outdoors to protect natural resources as a wildland firefighter

January 26, 2022

Environmental Bio UG|School of Sciences|Stories

An avid outdoorsman, Saint Mary’s University 2018 alumnus Christopher Virruso III is utilizing lessons he’s gathered from the classroom and his knowledge of the outdoors to protect forestland acreage, communities, and other natural resources. Virruso, who majored in environmental biology, works as a firefighter; however, there are no big red trucks in his line of work — only shovels, axes, and long days.

The Chicago native is employed as a wildland firefighter and forestry technician by the U.S. Forest Service and is stationed in White River National Forest. Working on a team with 10 other firefighters, Virruso and his coworkers hike into the Rocky Mountains of Colorado during fire season — sometimes working 16 hours a day for 14 straight days — to suppress wildfires with hand tools and chainsaws.

“We don’t have any hoses or water. We’re digging. Digging and cutting,” he said. “Our job is to remove brush and separate unburned fuel from the fuel that’s burning so we can suffocate the fire.”

Virruso has worked as a wildland firefighter for three years now. He said it’s a career he didn’t even know was possible when he was growing up — not even as a student at Saint Mary’s. Yet, he says his experience at Saint Mary’s set him on the path to his current career.

Having an uncle who briefly attended Saint Mary’s, Virruso says he visited Winona several times as a child. Being familiar with the landscape of the Driftless region, he knew Saint Mary’s was a place where he could immerse himself in nature as part of his college experience.

“When I was looking at colleges, I just wanted to study and learn more about the environment. I wanted to be outside, and I felt like the Mississippi River Valley was the perfect place,” he said.

After enjoying the opportunities to work and learn in the bluffs, streams, and rivers of the Winona area, Virruso knew whatever job he took after graduating would have to be outdoors.

After graduation, Virruso began working for the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps (RYMC) and was assigned to conservation projects in national parks and forests in Colorado. It was here where he was acquainted with wildland firefighting and began considering the profession.

“I liked building trails and being outdoors with the RYMC,“ he said. “But the firefighting portion of the work seemed very meaningful to me. You’re doing something that not only benefits you, but you’re also protecting folks.”
Entering the profession at a time when wildfire dangers are growing, Virruso has kept busy.

In 2020, his crew was called to the Pine Gulch Fire near Grand Junction, Colo., which was (at that point) the largest fire in the state’s history. From the ground, he said it was hard to tell how big the fire was. It wasn’t until family and friends told him about news reports they’d seen that he understood the magnitude of the event. During a particularly slow fire season in Colorado, he had the opportunity to return to Minnesota to respond to fires in the Boundary Waters.

Wildland firefighting may not have been a part of his coursework at Saint Mary’s, but he says he regularly applies lessons learned at the university into his daily work.

“The biggest takeaway from Saint Mary’s was how to communicate with others,” he said. “Which is important because of how dangerous the job is and how absolutely imperative it is that everybody knows what’s going on.”

While the dangers and physical demands of the job can take a toll, Virruso says he doesn’t see himself in any other job.

“We get paid in sunrises and sunsets, that’s kind of our motto. Even on the toughest days, it can be amazing. We’ll be up at 5 a.m. hiking, and we’ll see the sun come up over the Rockies, and I’ll just say, ‘Wow, this is the most magnificent place I’ve ever been,’ ” he said. “I’m lucky to be able to do this. I don’t know what tomorrow will hold, so the opportunity to travel and experience the outdoors and wildlife is amazing.”