As government agencies in the U.S. scramble to respond to a coming wave of mental health issues among stressed, exhausted, and traumatized wildland firefighters, union officials and mental health experts are calling for more critical days of rest, mental health benefits, and investments in fuel modification.
“Being a wildland firefighter has always involved long hours, personal risk, and weeks away from home. But this year has been something else,” writes Stateline, the reporting arm of PEW Charitable Trusts. “More than four million acres burned in California alone. Entire towns were torched in Washington and Oregon. Smoke was so thick the sky turned orange over West Coast cities.”
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And now, many of the men and women who fought these blazes are now battling mental health issues like depression, post-traumatic stress, and substance dependency—issues that, “even in a less-intense year,” tend to smoulder within the community of wildland firefighters. Now, they are ablaze.
That has Tim Edwards, a Forest Service smokejumper and president of Cal Fire Local 2881, calling for a mass hiring of more full-time firefighters, to allow “time off to decompress” for overtaxed teams like his. “We can’t even get relief for our guys on these major fires,” he told Stateline.
In January, California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) tried to secure about US$270 million over several years “to hire 677 more full-time Cal Fire firefighters and staff,” but was only able to line up $85.6 million—about a third of his request. “Newsom later used emergency funds to hire over 850 more seasonal firefighters,” reports Stateline.
One front-line firefighter, Aaron Humphrey, left the profession after his experience fighting the 2018 Carr Fire—so terrifyingly large, writes Stateline, that it produced its own weather system, including a fire tornado. Humphrey’s experience led to a deep depression, including “angry outbursts” and heavy drinking.
“I lost the mental fight,” he wrote in a farewell letter to his peers. “I felt dead inside that night.”
Ever more responsible for protecting entire communities—and ever more likely to witness acute human suffering—wildland firefighters are increasingly vulnerable to suicidal thoughts, said Nelda St. Clair, a retired U.S. Bureau of Land Management administrator who now offers crisis stress management training for wildland firefighters for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“Many wildland firefighters who die by suicide have experienced a traumatic event on the job, which can later fuel stress disorders, relationship problems, and unhealthy substance use,” she told Stateline.
A further imperative: reducing the risk of fire in the first place, through more investment in clearing underbrush from around infrastructure (a process known as fuel modification). But the larger fight involves climate protection.
“Ultimately, what’s going to make it safer for fighters is a healthy, restored, resilient ecosystem,” said Tim Ingalsbee, a wildland fire ecologist and executive director of the Oregon-based Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology.