Suicide rate among wildland firefighters is “astronomical”

From 2015 to 2016, 52 wildland firefighters took their own lives.

The number of wildland firefighters who have resorted to suicide is shocking — 52 in a two year period, 2015 to 2016. According to Nelda St. Clair of the Bureau of Land Management so far this year there have been another 16.

Wildland firefighting is a niche within the firefighting world. High rates of structural firefighters taking their own lives have been known for years, but these kinds of “astronomical” numbers, as described by Ms. St. Clair, in a much smaller population is stunning. There are only about 13,000 wildland firefighters in the five major federal land management agencies, along with several thousand others working for state and local agencies. It is likely that most of them personally know a firefighting brother or sister who succumbed to what might be called an epidemic.

Assuming for a moment that there are 17,000 wildland firefighters in the United States, approximately 0.3 percent of them took their own lives in 2015 and 2016 — a shocking percentage.

Most firefighters in general, and in particular, wildland firefighters, have a macho, can-do attitude, regardless of their gender. Just give them an objective, and they will figure out how to get it done, with little or no outside help. This can carry over into their personal lives and mental state. When the fire season is over their environment may shift from being part of a close brotherhood working with their buddies for long hours toward a common goal, to something completely different. The reduction in adrenalin and accomplishment of important tasks is more difficult for some to adjust to than others. Suicide rates can rise during the wildland fire off-season.

The fact that a national publication, The Atlantic, has published an in-depth article on the issue is an indicator of the seriousness of this problem. I suggest you read the entire article, but here is an excerpt:

…It’s hard to quantify both completed and attempted suicide rates in populations that aren’t prone to talk about mental health, but both factors are known to be high among “structure” firefighters—those who fight fires in buildings—and members of the military who face similar traumatic, high-stress situations as wildland firefighters. Jeff Dill, a captain at a fire station in Inverness, Illinois, and the founder of the Firefighter Behavioral-Health Alliance, which tracks firefighter suicides, says firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. In a 2015 study on suicide risk in firefighters, half of those who responded reported that they’d contemplated suicide.

Those concepts align with the wildland reports: St. Clair says they’ve lost five smoke jumpers to suicide in the last seven years, and had two in-the-line-of-duty deaths in the same period. But while structure and wildland firefighters are similar, the groups aren’t perfect analogs, which is why it’s particularly hard to address some of the most insidious risks for wildland firefighters. Urban firefighters, and people who fight structure fires, will usually have year-round work, health insurance, and mandatory trauma training. Their support system is fundamentally different…

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center’s Spring 2017 edition of Two More Chains was dedicated to this issue. An excerpt:

…In researching suicide in the wildland fire service for this issue of Two More Chains, it has been brought to our attention that, in some cases, a stigma regarding employee suicide has been observed not so much among young firefighters—who, it is said, are more open to addressing their emotions—but among some more senior wildland fire and agency managers who are apparently uncomfortable addressing the topic of mental health.

Unfortunately, we have learned that, in at least one instance, a fire manager believed that a firefighter who had died by suicide should not be entitled to an honor guard or a memorial stone in the Wildland Firefighter Foundation monument at NIFC, “because it would dishonor those who died innocently.” Similarly, we have heard about fire managers who have declined offers of free critical stress debriefings for their staff after a coworker suicide—without even asking their staff.

It’s also been brought to our attention that employees have been directed not to send emails that contain information about someone dying by suicide or to mention it in staff meetings—even though the victim’s family has been open about their family member’s cause of death.

We hope and believe that these are isolated incidents. That they are exceptions to the positive efforts that our fire agencies are currently pursuing—reflected throughout the input from our agency SMEs that is shared in this issue’s “SME Insights and Info” document.

By openly addressing the topic of mental health among our employees we can embrace the notion that this issue is no different than any other injury or disease.

We need to help ensure that all of our managers and senior leaders are on board with this enlightened perspective. We should not blame the victim, or treat the person in pain as “weak,” or otherwise refuse to acknowledge their mental health problems.

To be sure, if safety is truly our top priority, then it is our duty to take care of all of our people…

Two More Chains highlights work that is being done on this issue by several people, some of whom are intimately familiar with wildland firefighting. Patty O’Brien worked for 10 years on the Lolo Interagency Hotshot Crew and has a total of 15 years’ experience as a wildland firefighter. She is a fifth year PhD candidate in Clinical Psychology at the University of Montana.

Kim Lightley writes about how she experienced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after nine of her fellow crewmembers of the Prineville Hotshots were killed on the 1994 South Canyon Fire along with five other firefighters. After dealing with depression and survivor’s guilt for two years she sought counseling, which helped.

She wrote in Two More Chains:

When I was in the depths of PTSD—because I had all the symptoms—it would have been really awesome if somebody would have come up to me and said: ‘Hey, what you’re experiencing right now is normal, because what you experienced is very abnormal’. If I had heard that, I think I would have felt less crazy.

Today she is the Critical Incident Response Program Management Specialist for the U.S. Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management program.

Amanda Marsh’s husband Eric Marsh was one of the 19 firefighters that perished on the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013. She established the Eric Marsh Foundation which is committed to serving those directly affected by wildland line-of-duty deaths, as well as living wildland firefighters and their families. We asked for her insight:

It saddens me greatly knowing that our wildland firefighters are suffering. In 2015 I came very close to ending my life. I have PTSD and we are not talking about this enough in the fire service, wildland or structure.

PTSD is cumulative. Every traumatic event builds upon the last one, creating a situation where sometimes we feel so hopeless and so helpless that taking our lives seems like the only way out.

At the end of the season the fire family often disburses and the support that was so available during the fire season is no longer present in the way it was. We must begin talking about PTSD in every department, every agency. Our wildland firefighters deserve better, they deserve the ability to discuss openly and without fear of judgement when the stresses of the job begin to compound. I am talking about PTSD, I am talking about suicide openly because it is the right thing to do.

There is help out there. Call the Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255). We also offer help through the Eric Marsh Foundation for Wildland Firefighters by helping wildland firefighters get treatment for PTSD. You are not alone. There are many of us who know how you feel. You are loved and you are seen and you are valid.

Further reading

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center solicited and received insight from six wildland fire agency subject matter experts about the wildland firefighter suicide issue.

Help

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Brian.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills.

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11 thoughts on “Suicide rate among wildland firefighters is “astronomical””

    1. Consider their career prospects. Consider too, that they do this brutal work under Government in a hostile working environment. Consider that most of them are ordinary white boys, often able-bodied at first, and often with no Veteran’s preference, whose advancement is unwelcome in the agencies because it skews the Preferential Hiring and Advancement goals set out as Critical Areas of Performance for the hiring and supervisory ladders above them. Higher education merits no reward, nor is it really helpful in digging line, running saw, driving trucks, swamping out, mopping up, or making a hose lay. If someone fits the desired demographics, the desired appearance of the Station Photo, they will be cherry-picked by the supervisory people to pad their AA Performance. Their job is manual labor, and they have very little hope of any but a token few being able to advance. A-a-and, the people from the office certainly don’t want to get out there and work alongside them, nor will they really train or welcome these intelligent, often educated people into the policy and decision making ranks. They are grunts. Temporary, expendable personnel units. Should they have a family, they have nothing but penury to give their children if they continue. And many are there simply because they won’t fit anywhere else. Personalities make them outcast, and they smell “bad”.

      This is no secret. The long term sub-human GS5 and below are an embarrassment because nobody will really advocate for them in any meaningful way. It’s been this way for many, many decades, and will continue to be this way. The ONLY thing you can do is fire those who have personality disabilities, the ones who have things that are unwelcome further up the ranks, or just beat on them until they quit.

    2. Consider: there will be more during the winter layoff, and still more who, after leaving the service, go out a year or two before eating the gun or getting drunk and swerving into an obstacle. Or worse. Nobody wants to take the credit (blame) for what they (or the agencies) do to these people.

      1. What happens here is the pebble in the pond. It sets in motion a chain of events that goes on for a long time. And like military service, it can take a long time for people to recover from this happy family.

  1. We do not appreciate the men and women who risk their lives doing this brutal job. Thank you very much for your dedicated service.

  2. Wow. Sit down soberly wow. This should not be this way, that’s a fact. There are certainly identifiable reasons that contribute to this that can be fixed with thoughtful, informed measures that start with recognizing that everyone is a human being first, with human needs, duties and stresses, not a mechanical robot.

  3. Suicide. As a firefighter who has lost a dear friend & worried I could loosing another, I have a few things to say.

    I am not surprised by your words Bob. As a women wildland firefighter your words provoc anger and hurt. I think we have more in common then not. Altimitily the feeling of being devalued impacts many of us. The lack of good pay, career advancement, year round work, work-life balance is chronic in wildland firefighter careers, period. Throwing tokenism around is as devaluing as those who don’t express value for a white males. Both of those might be impacting suicide.

    Our culture of always having “our s*** in a pile” or “don’t be a soup sandwich” may be impacting our ability to voice our needs when times are tough as well.

  4. There are many factors that come into play. Being a seasoned Wildland firefighter I’ve endured a butt load of discrimination, threats of being fired for sexual harassment which was a joke because I never happened, two seasons of not being called out when I was told I was (A valuable asset) to thus team. Instead all their buddies were making a fortune and climbing the ladder!
    I’ve filed theee discrimination complaints and won two but the last one was beyond bullshit!
    They commit these acts of discrimination and know you haven’t the means of seeing it through financially!
    Forest service is the biggest farce you’ll ever come across!
    They’ll build you up only to take it away!
    If you’re older they’ll only take the younger men!
    Men? Haha! Boys and if you divulge your age you’re screwed!
    So the factors are many but there’s no counseling for those going through tough times from injuries sustained from assignments.
    You do not dare divulge any preexisting injuries, nor divulge any medications.
    If you’re gay? Forget it! You’ll never work!
    So many factors I could let you know about!
    I’ve been an AD for three branches of government plus contractor crews.

  5. It’s a damn shame, but it’s a common trend in all high stress, low paying, and food chain of blood sucker type jobs. These jobs are designed to use you up, because God forbid, without you, those folks behind a phone or computer would have to sweat a little. What these folks need is someone to speak to that can help and understand what they’ve seen. Coming from someone whose had to use the veterans suicide hotline a few times, I know calling out to someone whose main goal is to get you into the VA and addicted to a bunch of medication that ruins your life is a hard want to do. Consider you’re dealing with a bunch of hardcore minded young men that the last thing they want is to show any kind of weakness. My heart breaks thinking back to the soldiers who reached out to me while I was in and the few I didn’t show the help they needed and the eventuality finally happened. That changed me and now I know how their suffering finally led to their demise. Leadership needs to be thoroughly screened and someone who gives a damn about their firefighters should be put into place. Someone who can sweat, bleed, and talk to their hardcore group of folks who take the fight where it’s needed and don’t quit until they’ve got containment.

  6. I am a career firefight that started as a volunteer and was able to follow through with a dear as a firefighter/ medic. I would also work for local ambulance service. I’m suffer from PTSD and depression! I AM A SURVIVOR OF SUICIDE!!!!! I have struggled with many changes and challenges of all life. I will be more then happy to speak out and share my story to help and make a difference in life experiences as a firefighter and medic!!! To the loss of life do to suicide!!! Donald Martinez 307-705-2575. Email donmartinez911@Yahoo.com.

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