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Mental Health Crisis Hits U.S. Wildland Firefighters

Longer, more intense fire seasons are increasing stress and trauma among U.S. wildland firefighters, raising the need for accessible, targeted mental health services.

“There are more than 20,000 wildland firefighters in the U.S., spread between federal land management agencies, state and municipal departments, and private entities, as well as crews composed of inmates,” reports The Guardian. “That’s thousands of individuals…who risk their lives—and their psychological health—season after season.” 

Wildfires are becoming more intense and frequent because of warmer temperatures and dry conditions, and as residential development continues to push into fire-prone areas, more people are being put at risk. The fire season has extended, too, reaching an average of 78 days longer than it was in the 1970s.

“The exposure to human suffering in the last three years is not something you’d see at a typical day of work at firefighting—entire communities destroyed, loss of human life, loss of wildlife, loss of the landscape that we treasure,” said Nelda St Clair, national critical incident stress management program manager for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “That’s not what wildland firefighters signed up to do, but it’s what they’re exposed to.” 

And now, wildland firefighters show higher than average risk for “depression, alcohol use disorder, sleep deprivation, and post-traumatic stress,” The Guardian reports. Research on first responders’ mental health also shows a more than 10 times greater risk of contemplating or attempting suicide. 

A study commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that more firefighters die by suicide than from fighting fires, recording 103 firefighter suicides in 2017 compared to 93 deaths in the line of duty that same year. The researchers also estimate that only about 40% of firefighter suicides are reported, suggesting a jarring 257 annual suicides. Citing a separate study, The Guardian adds that wildland firefighters report “clinically significant suicidal symptoms” at a rate more than 20% higher than non-wildland firefighters.

“The steady accumulation of mental strains—financial stress, a demanding work environment, isolation from loved ones, and the pressure to manage public expectations—creates the perfect storm for mental health problems to emerge,” The Guardian writes.

Despite this demanding, high-risk work, federal wildland firefighters are often paid less than US$14 per hour, and many rely on 1,000 hours or more of overtime and hazard pay to cover their living expenses. Firefighters are also often employed seasonally, with shifts of up to 16 hours a day for 14 days at a time. And mental health issues can become more acute in the off season, when firefighters no longer have access to peer support. 

What’s needed, say experts, are employee assistance programs (EAPs) that have adequate trauma-informed clinicians with firefighting knowledge. Some regions are adapting their EAPs to add these resources, and programs are also in development to apply military stress first aid training to help equip support teams to assess stress levels. 

The Bureau of Land Management has also organized conversations with thousands of wildland firefighters prior to fire season. “Having consistent messaging dispensed through mandatory programs could go a long way, some say,” writes The Guardian. “As could a more robust peer support network and an influx of federal funding—all of which are increasingly difficult in the face of tightening budgets.”