A fire supervisor asks, “Why didn’t I see this coming?”

Fire personnel and mental health issues

Eclipse Complex firefighters
Firefighters on the Eclipse Complex of fires, Klamath NF, 2017. Photo by B. Patton. InciWeb.

From Bill: I have been communicating for a few weeks with a U.S. Forest Service Forestry Technician about an article they wanted to submit about helping employees who are struggling with mental health issues. The text arrived by email yesterday:

Sorry for the delay. I’ve actually been really busy at work, and then I had an employee resign for mental health reasons today.  For that reason I don’t want to put this off anymore.

Here is the article. The author wished to remain anonymous.

It has now been over a year since the start of the 2020 fire season.  It has also been just over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic truly began affecting my life, and the lives of the people I work with.  A year ago I was onboarding my crew in full COVID PPE, issuing gear and sending them home to telework while we figured out how to fight fire during a pandemic.  I was legitimately thrilled to start the 2021 season, thinking the pandemic and the stress was behind us and that finally we could get back to ‘normal’.

But today I had a talk with one of my employees about their incredibly difficult off-season and the mental health struggles they’ve been dealing with.  The details of their struggle aren’t critical here.  It could be about money, family, a relationship, personal health, or simply happiness and life satisfaction.  What is important is that since the end of the 2020 fire season, almost half of the employees I supervise have approached me with mental health concerns just like these.  Yes, you read that right.  Nearly half of my employees are struggling to cope to the extent that they approached me needing help and advice.  And while I was aware, as I’m sure you are, that the pandemic has caused trauma, stress, depression, and self harm at unprecedented levels potentially not seen before, it hadn’t personally affected me until now.  And now it’s here, and not in a small way.  This is not an anomaly. This is a trend.

At first I had a serious bout of self reflection and introspection.  “What have I done to these people that they’re hurting so badly?”  “What happened last season to push them in this direction?”  “Did I drive them too hard?”  “Why didn’t I see this coming?”  I consulted with some of my mentors and realized that no, it isn’t necessarily me.  It’s us.  It’s our culture.  We think we can handle just about anything.  We regularly and voluntarily place ourselves into environments that define the word stress, and we do so with big dirty grins on our faces.  And as the season grinds on we find a few ways to cope, and they’re usually extremely unhealthy.  It should not surprise us that this approach is bound to break down.  But one thing we don’t do is talk about how we’re feeling.  We grind it out because we know winter is coming.  And we think that will help.  But what if it doesn’t?  I’m writing today to say that it doesn’t.  Winter unemployment wasn’t a holiday.  Fire season was a holiday from reality.  And when work ends, the harsh reality of “real life” is waiting there staring you in the face.  And now we are returning to work not refreshed and fit and ready to go, but drained from a stressful winter.  And if this problem exists where I work, I truly believe it must be happening where you work, whether it’s being talked about or not.

So here’s my advice.  I’m not a mental health professional so take it for what it’s worth.  I’m just a guy who’s done this for a little while.

Firefighters – know that you are not alone.  Literally everyone experiences the same anxiety and struggles just like you do, in different ways and at different times.  The past 12 months have been brutal.  Everyone on my crew broke their career overtime records in 2020, and did so while it felt like the world was imploding around us, and while we were isolated from friends and family.  Stress on top of stress for 6-8 months followed by being set adrift and alone into the world once the snow flies is mentally taxing in a normal year.  Doing all of that during a pandemic was bound to push people over the edge.  I only ask that you realize that we are here for you.  Your supervisors.  Your coworkers.  Even the random people you meet for one shift on a fire and never see again.  We’re here for you because we are you.  We experience it too.  And while we may not have all the answers, we’re all better off seeking them together.  Speak up.  Your voice will empower the voices of others.  And there are free and anonymous resources to connect you with professionals regardless of which agency you work for. Talking about it will help.

Supervisors – Make yourself available and approachable.  I am as guilty as the rest of you.  In our line of work, I am a stereotypical fireline supervisor.  I am loud and outspoken, and I portray a confidence that I’m sure tells my subordinates that I am more or less bulletproof and immune from these issues personally.  That is not helpful.  That does not give your people the confidence to speak up.  Show humility.  Lose the ego.  Let them see your weaknesses.  Empower your employees with the knowledge they need to get help.  Give them contact information for the Employee Assistance Program (EAP).  While I am at times a major skeptic when it comes to believing “the agency” has our back, I can say for certain that my agency’s EAP has done incredible work for the people I’ve put in touch with it.  And even if no one has approached you for help, you can still foster an environment that encourages open communication and the ability to come to you with issues.  The egomaniacal “shut up and dig” approach may work in some cases, but this is not one of them.

Thanks for indulging me in my brief but passionate soapbox rant.  I don’t claim to have the answers.  I have no formal training in mental health or therapy.  But I’ve done this job for a long time, and I’m seeing looks on faces I’ve never seen before.  We’ve been getting better recently about talking.  Opening up.  Discussing as opposed to directing.  But I believe we still have work to do if we’re going to create a culture and a family that feels comfortable speaking up and opening up about mental health.  Life is stressful enough these days.  Doing what we do on top of all of that is bound to be just a little too much sometimes.  Drop the ego and be a human.  A little empathy goes a long way.  Have a safe season.


Note from Bill:

Suicide rates among wildland firefighters have been described as “astronomical.

Help is available for those feeling really depressed or suicidal.

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6 thoughts on “A fire supervisor asks, “Why didn’t I see this coming?””

  1. Thanks for stepping up and writing this. Sadly this has been going on for a lot longer then 98% of FS supervisors care to acknowledge. I have tried and tried to talk about mental health. PTSD from Iraq, Afghanistan, family member murdered. Then it happened, not a break through with someone, nope. FMO came to me and told me to stop talking about mental health. The harsh reality is the culture hasn’t changed yet. The pandemic is ripping the scab off. Low pay, the expectation that everyone should just work 500+ hours OT and that’s ok. Then we just say bye. See ya next spring. The system is broke and we are breaking too.

  2. This is nothing new, My Friends. The agency has been grinding its lower level employees into the dust for decades. Many of them are just left behind … out of sight, out of mind; “not my responsibility.” The damage isn’t readily apparent, especially if you bury it under a layoff.

  3. Thanks for the write up “Guest Author”. I have recently found myself struggling to get my head in the game for the upcoming fire season. I have struggled to identify the cause but I am certain that off-boarding employees and demobing from a fire on the same day last season probably didn’t help. I hadn’t realized how much last season affected me until recently, I lay awake replaying tense moments from last year when fires raged and I was left in situations with limited or no resources to take action. On one of the fires from last season a structure was lost on my division, I had no resources to protect the structure and honestly couldn’t of committed people to it anyway. Recently through random conversation with another parent from my sons baseball team I learned that the parent was the owner of the structure, needless to say I didn’t sleep much that night and felt unbearable grief even though I know deep down it was out of my control. My season ended with a fire that devastated the community in which I am stationed. The fire started during a pre frontal event and even if we were on scene the moment the fire started , it wouldn’t have mattered. Even though I know again there was little we could do, the grief gets to me and I play the “what-if” game over and over. I have the feeling I let my community down, that they have lost confidence in us. I have found myself short tempered and snapping out at my family over petty domestic disputes, I’ve have talked with my wife about this in length and she is incredibly supportive but during these conversations I find myself feeling selfish for not being better able to cope. Just writing this feels like a sob story to myself. I appreciate your words in the write up as they hit home. The programs you mentioned are a great support tool and they’ve helped me before. I encourage anyone that is struggling or playing mind games with themselves to use these resources. Stay safe fellow Forestry Techs!

  4. An important article. In addition to the challenges of the job, the economic challenges of trying to afford to live anywhere close to your duty station has got to be overwhelming. The agencies should pay attention and look closer at the social big picture of how they accomplish their mission.

  5. Thank you for publishing this Bill and thank you to your guest writer for laying it out there.

  6. What an amazing message. That’s what leadership looks like and there isn’t enough people like this speaking out.

    As employees, we feel like the agency has abandoned us. We rely heavily on third-party assistance for injuries and mental health issues.

    The agency (USFS) is actually sending out third-party information where employees can solicit donations from like the Smokey Generation group.

    I’d like to add that the EAP program was not there for employees this winter. I actually was hung up on by a counselor just after I said I wasn’t going to kill myself or hurt my kids. Because I am a Permanent Seasonal Employee in non-pay status, I was ineligible for assistance.

    I’m glad that with the help of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, we put a light on that and in that one region now all temps and PSEs are eligible for 6 months after the season. They are now eligible for 6 phone calls or zoom visits.

    The biggest problem with mental health issues amongst the workforce is that the agency refuses to acknowledge that Wildland firefighters (forestry technicians) have any unique mental health problems due to the job. They treat us as if we are stressed out because the pen at our desk ran out of ink.

    It’s asinine from the Forest Service and the BLM. When developing an Employee Assistance Program, who is in charge of that? A mental health professional with firefighter related experience? Nope. Probably a detailer working on Time In Grade to move from the fuels tech to the fuels AFMO somewhere. You think I’m joking? I wish…

    The federal agencies need to start taking mental health seriously. Someone please share what the agencies are doing specifically for the unique issues that Wildland firefighters face?


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