Coast Life

Unsung Santa Cruz: Her call to duty is stronger than most, but she is also only human

No one could prepare volunteer fire captain Renee Fenker for what it would be like defending the San Lorenzo Valley area she grew up in — or being unable to defend her family’s longtime house from the CZU fire flames: “We need to remember that a lot of our community is still healing.”

The special memories Renee Fenker holds from her time at Boulder Creek Elementary School in the late 1990s made her task in August 2020 all the more consequential.

The volunteer fire captain and her Felton Fire Protection District crew fought back the flames and saved the school — a significant victory amid the chaos of the CZU Complex fire that would end up destroying more than 900 homes, including the one Fenker grew up in.

“They don’t train you for fighting fires at the buildings you learned to read in,” she said. “Nothing can prepare you for that emotional battle.”

Fenker took three weeks off from her job as shift manager at a Scotts Valley Starbucks to do her part in battling the largest fire in Santa Cruz County history.

“I’ve always had a call to help support people in my community,” she said.

The 31-year-old who grew up in Brookdale and Boulder Creek joined Felton Fire in 2014 and became a captain with the department in 2019.

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During the CZU fire, Fenker strategized about how to save her childhood home in Brookdale, the one she lived in from her adoption at age 3 until she was 18, the one her mother too had grown up in. But the location made it too dangerous for any fire crews — including her own — to save it from the flames.

Renee Fenker helped save her childhood school, Boulder Creek Elementary, during the CZU fire.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The home had served as a gathering place for her entire family, a compound her parents had lived in for over 50 years alongside their siblings and shared families. It was the “place all of us came to,” she said. After it was gone, Fenker and her family felt the loss in ways they could never have imagined. “So many memories,” she said.

Fenker said that while she was trained to do her job and handle high-stress situations, there was never a discussion of the emotional piece one deals with when a major emergency unfolds in the place you grew up.

It’s hard to set aside your personal feelings to go and do what your job is needing you to do at the moment.

“It’s hard to set aside your personal feelings to go and do what your job is needing you to do at the moment,” she said.

Fenker was part of the efforts that eventually saved her elementary school, working with Cal Fire to battle the spot flames around its wooded perimeter. She reflects on the experience as “surreal” now, but the emotions didn’t affect Fenker until after all the CZU fire’s embers had been extinguished.

Renee Fenker works the hose during her fire department duties.
(Via Renee Fenker)

“In the moment when you’re fighting the fire,” you don’t feel it, she said. But afterward is another story. “When I look at the burn scar now, I feel an attachment to that place.”

Her parents wanted to stay behind and fight the fire that threatened their home themselves, protecting their mountain haven — but their fire-captain daughter had to be straightforward with them about the risk. As the flames drew closer, they left with regret.

“There’s a lot of guilt for them, thinking they could save the property,” she said. “This isn’t something that we think of with PTSD, of an entire community potentially being gone.”

Reconnected to community

In the weeks after she was on the front lines, Fenker returned to Starbucks with a newfound determination to connect with her community. More than a year later, she still balances the two roles, sticking to a 40-60-hour schedule in her full-time role and committing to on-call overnights multiple times per week with the fire department.

Renee Fenker on the job at Starbucks.
(Via Renee Fenker)

While the schedule can be tiring for many, Fenker says she feels enlivened and encouraged by it, aiming to foster that community connection further in the wake of prolonged trauma.

“I get to make people’s days better with a cup of coffee, and help people out on their worst day,” she said. “We realize how important human connection is to people, and how important regular communication is — that’s something I take to both the jobs.”

Emily Dennis — a coworker to Fenker at both Starbucks and Felton Fire — feels an immense kinship and looks to her colleague for guidance in both roles.

“She told me to apply when she was shadowing drills at Felton — I was kind of under her wing,” Dennis said.

Renee Fenker and her crew at the coffee shop.
(Via Renee Fenker)

Fenker is working with her parents to rebuild a homestead in the Santa Cruz Mountains, in a more fire-safe area, even if it will be different and new memories will need to be made.

“A family isn’t a place,” she said. “It’s something you have in your heart.”

Her focus on the greater family of community members around her — and how she might be able to help them — has never been more acute.

Every single person is going through a hidden battle outside of the interaction you’re having with them. We need to remember that a lot of our community is still healing.

“Every single person is going through a hidden battle outside of the interaction you’re having with them,” she said. “We need to remember that a lot of our community is still healing.”