Yarnell Hill Fire survivor pushes for creation of a “healing center”

Biden, Brendan McDonough, Janice Brewer

Brendan McDonough, Yarnell Hill Fire survivor, speaks in Prescott, Arizona at the July 9, 2013 memorial service for the 19 firefighters that died on the fire. Vice President Joe Biden and Arizona Governor Janice Brewer are on the left and right, respectively. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Brendan McDonough watched from a distance as the other 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots became entrapped and died June 30, 2013 on the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona. Now, according to an article in the USA Today, he still struggles with stress-related problems. No longer a firefighter but working for the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, he wants to “create a non-profit organization to fulfill a dream of building a “healing center” in Prescott where first-responders, including troubled wildfire crews and their families, can seek treatment.”

The article’s main focus is a topic that rarely gets discussed in the world of wildland fire — the day to day psychological strains that firefighters face which are similar to those experienced by warfighters. The military has a highly developed program for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but the land management agencies, with a primary focus of growing trees, cleaning campgrounds, and managing visitors and non-native plants, have done little, effectively, to deal with a shocking suicide rate, for example.

The excellent article gives several examples of how stress is negatively affecting some of our firefighters. Below is an excerpt:

…Wildland Firefighter Foundation Executive Director Vicki Minor — Burk Minor’s mother — estimates that as many as one in four such firefighters struggle with emotional trauma.

She says her organization counted six firefighter suicides during 2013. If accurate, it suggests a rough suicide rate of 17 per 100,000, far higher than the national average and similar to the pace of these deaths in the military.

“Our government, our fire officials, the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, they’re really good at taking care of the land and they know how to fight fire,” Vicki Minor says. “They don’t know how to take care of their people.”

Federal workers get free visits to a contracted private counselor, but many firefighters complain these providers are not schooled in PTSD treatment, Vicki Minor says. “I’ve had several of these men say that they had to pay for a therapist out of their own pocket,” she says.

The Forest Service recently published pocket-sized pamphlets with tips on traumatic stress and resilience. But the guides offer nothing about where to seek help if necessary, except to cite websites from the Department of Veterans Affairs and private suicide support groups.

Forest Service Fire Management Director Harbour says the deaths of the 19 Prescott firefighters were a wake-up call on the emotional stress firefighters may incur. “How do we deal with what we carry after we go through a traumatic incident?” he asks.

He and his staff have turned to the Marine Corps for ideas about building emotional resilience in firefighters. He urged in a briefing paper to senior officials that “we have developed wonderful new tools to help physically protect firefighters. Now is the time to ‘build a better brain!'”

He and his staff have turned to the Marine Corps for ideas about building emotional resilience in firefighters. He urged in a briefing paper to senior officials that “we have developed wonderful new tools to help physically protect firefighters. Now is the time to ‘build a better brain!'”

The land management agencies should consider developing an experimental program with the Department of Veterans Affairs that would take advantage of their existing PTSD treatment facilities, such as the one at the VA Hospital in Hot Springs, South Dakota, the “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Residential Rehabilitation Program”. Send a few firefighters with PTSD symptoms to a facility such as this and then evaluate the possible benefits.

Yarnell Hill Fire Honor Escort

On July 7, 2013, 19 hearses carried the remains of the Granite Mountain Hotshots back to Prescott, Arizona. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Kelly.

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Firefighters: four recommendations for eating, drinking, and working out

wildfire

Dr. Brent Ruby is a professor at the University of Montana who studies extreme physiology, including how wildland firefighting impacts the body. In 2011 we wrote an article titled The myth of drinking water which included the results of some of Dr. Ruby’s research, as well as his thoughts about the firefighter hyperthemia fatality on the CR 337 fire in Texas.

Men’s Journal has an interesting article featuring Dr. Ruby and some of his recommendations for firefighters. Below is an excerpt:

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“Workouts should mirror job demands.

Rather than banging out a 10k in featherweight running sneakers every morning, crewmembers should go for long hikes on steep trails wearing a heavy backpack and clunky boots. “Hiking with a heavy load – that’s job-specific aerobic training.”

Eat constantly.

Ruby has found that to be safely working at peak condition, they should consume 4,500 calories a day with a number of “eating episodes.” If what’s supposed to be an eight-hour shift turns into a 12-hour shift, Hotshots should have easy access to quality calories. “They need an elaborate food plan that accommodates unpredictable shifts. We envision giving them ownership of the menu, where they can mix and match 12 items,” he says.

Aim for variety in calories.

Ruby suggests packing a high-quality red meat for protein; several types of fresh fruit; carbs in the form of oats and rice; carrots and broccoli for diversity; and loads of dried fruits and nuts. “They need foods that satisfies and doesn’t leave them focusing on how hungry they still are,” Ruby says. “Their job is fire suppression. As soon as they’re distracted from fire suppression, other risks crop up.”

Drink water – and lots of it.

The best way to think about hydration, according to Ruby, is in terms of “water turnover” over a 24 hour period, or how much water you take in and dump out through sweat and urine. On average, the water turnover for Hotshots is 7 to 9.5 liters a day. “You have to make sure you’re taking in somewhere in that range – probably a liter more than you’re putting out,” he says. Being sufficiently hydrated alone, however, isn’t going to stop you from overheating in a high-stress situation, warns Ruby.”

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Throwback Thursday

Six years ago this week, these are some of the topics we wrote about on Wildfire Today in 2008:

Ice Storms in Missouri increased the fuel available for wildfires by a factor of 10.

A man in Texas was arrested after he allegedly attempted to run over with an ATV volunteer firefighters who were battling a grass fire on his property.

CAL FIRE was being taken to court, according to a suit, for partially demobing the Piru fire before it was 100% contained. The fire grew from 1,200 to 64,000 acres. Apparently the strategy and tactics that were used on the fire are being questioned in a court of law 4 years after the fact.

Fire Captain Matt Moore with the Murrieta (California) Fire Department died, succumbing to complications from meningitis, fire department officials said. He had been in various hospitals since November battling an aggressive form of meningitis. It is believed Moore inhaled a parasite while fighting the region’s wildfires late last year. The parasite reportedly caused swelling in his brain.

Captain Matt Moore

Captain Matt Moore. Photo courtesy of the Murrieta Firefighters Association.

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A cop looks at hotshot fitness

A law enforcement officer wrote an article about the fitness standards and programs for interagency hotshot crews. Jim Vaglica is a full-time police sergeant on call 24/7 with a regional SWAT team in the Boston area. He is a strength and conditioning specialist, a police sergeant, and is a cast member of Mark Burnett’s “Expedition Impossible”. The article was published by Bodybuilding.com.

In describing hotshots, he said, “If I had to relate it to my own professional background, I’d say it’s the difference between a squad of police officers and a SWAT team.”

Below are more excerpts from the article:

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“THIS IS UNIQUE WORK. WHAT SORT OF STRENGTH DOES IT DEMAND?

Unlike fighting structure fires, where brute strength is paramount, the physical demands of wildland firefighting are vastly different. You’re not going to be carrying a 200-pound man down a flight of stairs and out of a burning building. No one on the crew gives a crap “How much ya bench?” All they care about is that you can swing a tool all day without bitching and moaning, and then get up the next day and do it again. If you look at most hotshot crews, you’ll see a lot of slender builds. Excessive muscle mass doesn’t get you anywhere. It just slows you down.

WHAT IS THE TOUGHEST PART OF THE JOB?

When you’re actually fighting a fire, the almost unbearable conditions seem to have no end. After a few hours of working in 110-degree heat with no shade, you may start to think that there’s no way you can finish the day, but you know that everyone else on your crew is suffering too. You just push through it for the guys on either side of you. If you go down, they’ll have to pick up your slack. When you’re in the middle of nowhere punching in line, you can’t just jump in your car and go home. You take another big swig of hot water, you deal with it, and you keep going.”

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Wildfire news, October 6, 2012

Idaho Governor has recommendations on how to reduce damage from wildfires

The Governor of Idaho, C.L. “Butch” Otter, in an opinion article published under his name, has some recommendations about how to reduce the adverse impacts from wildfires. They include more roads, grazing, and logging.

Smoke from Idaho’s Mustang Fire had elevated levels of radiation

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality tested the air quality near the Mustang Fire and said that even though they found “definitely elevated” levels of radiation, it did not pose a risk to human health. The air samples were obtained in the nearby town of North Fork. As Wildfire Today told you on September 21, the fire burned through four former mining sites that had traces of radioactive uranium and thorium.

The Chicago Tribune reports:

…Paul Ritter, health physicist with the state environmental agency, said in the area of the mining sites, smoke from the fire showed amounts of radiation roughly equivalent to emissions from a fire in 2000 that charred parts of Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nuclear weapons design facility in New Mexico.

“The readings are definitely elevated but not out of line with what has been measured in fires before. It is not a risk,” he said.

Americans are exposed to an estimated 310 millirems of radiation a year from natural sources, including some rocks and soils, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

An analysis of air samples in North Fork showed residents would have been exposed to 0.5 millirems of radiation in a 30-day period. That compares to a dose of 5 millirems delivered by a round-trip transcontinental flight, Ritter said.

Utah students influence legislation about wildfires

Some high school students in Utah who were interested in the effects of climate change talked to state Representative Kraig Powell, who, according to a report in Power Engineering:

…has opened a bill file for legislation that would examine how climate change is expected to drive more and bigger wildfires and to begin planning for future wildfire fighting and suppression costs.

In early meetings with Powell, [the students] shared some of what they had learned about wildfire in Utah. For instance, they told how the state already has seen 400,000 acres burned this year with suppression costs of $47.1 million — part of a trend prompted by record hot and dry periods.

They also told how rehabilitating burned areas often costs more than fighting the wildfire itself. Their example? The 2007 Milford Flat fire which racked up a $5 million bill for suppression, while rehabilitating the scarred forest and range cost $17 million.

That’s what led to the concept for the bill, which is currently being drafted by the Legislature’s lawyers.

“I’ve been learning a lot,” Powell said. “It’s not a simple science.”

Meth production may have caused brush fire

Michigan State Police are investigating a small wildfire that may have originated from an attempt to cook meth in Marquette Township.

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