Wildland firefighters’ invisible injuries can be life-threatening

A real-life example after the line of duty death of a fellow firefighter

David Ruhl memorial service
Attendees at the memorial service for David Ruhl in Rapid City, South Dakota, August 9, 2015. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

During his 14 years working for the Bureau of Land Management as a wildland firefighter, a fire that Danny Brown responded to on July 30, 2015 changed his life in ways that most of us cannot fathom. Mr. Brown was one of the first to find the burned body of his friend David Ruhl who was entrapped and killed during the initial attack of the Frog Fire in northern California.

An excellent article by Mark Betancourt in High Country News describes the upheaval that occurred in Mr. Brown’s life, how he tried to deal with it, and how the government’s system for treating on the job injuries failed.

Here is a brief excerpt:

The trauma Brown sustained that day could happen to any wildland firefighter. It drove him out of the career he loved and the community that came with it, and to his agony it limited his ability to support his wife and their three children. He was eventually diagnosed with chronic PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder — and in his most desperate moments, he thought about taking his life. Adding to his suffering was the feeling that he had been abandoned by the government that put him in harm’s way.

A number of people bent over backwards trying to help Mr. Brown receive the professional help he badly needed, including a friend, a supervisor, the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, and Nelda St. Clair, a consultant who coordinates fire-specific crisis intervention and mental fitness for federal and state agencies.

Federal agencies that employe wildland firefighters (but call them technicians) hire them to perform a hazardous job. A percentage of them in the course of their career will be involved directly or indirectly with a very traumatic event. Many of them will power through it with no serious effects, at least outwardly. But others will suffer unseen injuries after having performed their duties.

These federal agencies do not have an effective system or procedure for helping their employees heal from chronic PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder —  incurred while on the job. Untreated, chronic PTSD can lead to suicide.

Ms. St Clair tries to keep track of how many wildland firefighters take their own lives each year. Her unofficial tally suggests as many die by suicide as in the line of duty.

I can’t help but think that if the job title of these “technicians” was instead, “firefighter”, it might be easier for the hierarchy to understand, and get them the professional support some of them so desperately need. Range Technicians have different job stresses than wildland firefighters. In some cases chronic PTSD is an issue of life and death, not something we can keep ignoring.

If you are a firefighter of part of his or her family, you need to read the article in High Country News. If family members recognize the symptoms it could be helpful.

If you are in an influential position in the federal land management agencies you need to read the article. Look at the firefighters in the photo above who were attending the memorial service for Mr. Ruhl. Do what you can to ensure that no other employees are forced to suffer like Mr. Brown and no doubt others, have.

If you are a federal Senator or Representative, you need to read the article. Then introduce and pass legislation so that other “technicians” do not have to suffer like Mr. Brown.

Read the article.


Help is available for those feeling really depressed or suicidal.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

8 thoughts on “Wildland firefighters’ invisible injuries can be life-threatening”

  1. If the “technician” were to be changed to ” firefighter”, they would then qualify for all the benefits that firefighters worked so hard to obtain.
    That takes money. The Department of the Interior refuses to address this inequity.
    What a terrible injustice this is.

  2. This bureaucratic labeling is so hard to comprehend.
    Is there a solution that will have an impact?
    Can we get “someone” to “do the right thing”and address this issue?

  3. Currently with in USDA and DOI most all perm or career seasonal “range /forestry technicians”in fire related positions are covered with fire 6C benefits if they are in a “covered” position. Seasonal fire fighters are not so fortunate.

    This is a well known issue that has been brewing for many years and change is needed sooner than later to correct this. This is a difficult and frustrating process with all fire personnel not only with in the agencies, but more so with OPM with little agreement on the either side. This is not just a DOI or USDA issue it needs to be addressed collectively by both departments, OPM and congress to enact reform with in the natural resource agencies in regards to all fire programs and classification.

  4. This subject hits close to home, especially on the South Canyon anniversary timeframe. Forest and Range Techs hauling bodies off the hill, some to completely leave the business afterward. Low and slow helicopter accidents, some “survivors”, driving accidents (all too common), deaths by other than flames. Responses to drownings and aircraft accidents. Been thru CISM too many times, and folks get some stuff off their chests, but a lot remains. Survivor guilt. Prescribed fire downwind smoke inhalers (a planned management action). Who else gets screened for throat cancer annually? It all swirls together in a mass of “Don’t care” agencies.

  5. Since I was wrongfully terminated from the Forest Service back in October of 2018, I’ve gotten a lot of calls from current and former employees from NPS and FS pertaining to suicide. In fact, at the WWG meeting with Vicki Christainsen back in the summer of 2019, we discussed the increasing numbers of suicides, especially in the FIRE community. Eventhough suicides have increased 29%, the Forest Service does nothing to help people at risk. I know this is a hard topic to discuss, we all know someone who has attempted or has committed suicide, but we need to help one another and get rid of the stigma of suicide. The NPS and FS need to seriouly address the issues that led to suicide in order to prevent them in the future.

  6. After 17 years of “Forestry Technician” service, 10 years of that service being hotshot and handcrew time, I’m leaving The Forest Service. I’m going into a career outside of The Federal Government, completely unrelated to firefighting aka forestry teching. There are many reasons but the main one is the topic discussed in this article and the article about about Danny Brown. I’ve got the PTSD. It’s quite a buzzkill. I’ve almost been a fireline fatality. I’ve seen people die and get mangled. I’ve been on numerous fatality fires. One of my childhood friends died on a fire. Forestry Teching is serious business. It’s not just some summer job.

    I feel like “The Agency” rides us until our wheels fall off. Then when the wheels finally fall off and you need help getting new ones “The Agency” is nowhere to be found. I’m not an isolated case. I can rattle of names of at least thirty employees with over ten years experience who quit for the same reasons. And the vast majority of the current Forestry Technicians I know would leave in an instant if they found a better opportunity. I mean it’s cool to go to a chode festival for the experience, friendships, entertainment, and the I was there t-shirt. Chode Fest 2003-2020-I was there. But after 17 years of chodery I’m over it bro. Have fun with your poison oak, 15.5s with H, missing every family event (maybe even Christmas ) , scary snags, taco ass, swamp crotch, Alaskan buttcheek rot, ingrown toenails, alcoholism, divorce, high blood pressure, PTSD, swarms of hornets, sunburns, heat exhaustion, the rhabdomyolysis, times unit leaders named Karen, old retired AD Safety Officers telling you to wear gloves, watching CAL FIRE people make a million dollars, powdered eggs, rainbow meat sandwiches, GS-Fantastics with no fire experience telling you how to do your job, The Klamath, baggers slamming blueroom doors at 3 a.m., veggie omelet MREs, day “sleeping” when it’s 107 degrees in a shit-filled livestock corral at the Shasta County Fairgrounds after a 36 hour shift, getting taken off the clock when you’re spiked out in the wilderness, trying to interact with regular society after an insane fire season, and AG Learn.

    Laters.

  7. Fire Boots……………………$500

    MRE…………………….$15

    Chainsaw……………..$1200

    When your agency is imploding before your very eyes and the response from the top is “sometimes you have to let things fail” ………………………Priceless

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