Perimeter

Fight fire aggressively, having provided for mental health first

American Elk prescribed fire Wind Cave National Park
A firefighter ignites the American Elk prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park, October 20, 2010. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

By Anonymous

Note: For the purposes of this article and ease of language I will be referring to “forestry technicians” (our official job title) as “wildland firefighters.” I and many of my cohort strongly identify with the latter classification.

I am a federal wildland firefighter experiencing mental health issues. It doesn’t matter who I am, where I work, or what my demographics are because there are many like me. In the middle of my career, neither fresh nor wise, I am facing some tough questions. By explaining my perspective I hope to shed light on this worsening epidemic. Maybe my experience will encourage people to check in on their employees, peers, family or friends in fire. Perhaps with the countless other stories coming out these days policy-makers will listen and start to adjust their tactics.

There have been bad fire seasons before; I’ve worked too many hours with unpleasant people, had tyrant bosses, and experienced a smattering of sexual harassment. There was Yarnell. I’ve weathered it all not with grace but with sheer tenacity. Of course I’ve made my share of mistakes, talked back when I should have kept my mouth shut, kept my mouth shut when I should have spoken up, but I consider myself an average federal employee in this regard. I’m good at my job and maintain a high level of passion for it.

In all honesty I’ve struggled with mental health in some form most of my life. I do not believe this invalidates my experience or the responsibility of the agency to recognize its problems. Certainly the all-or-nothing seasonal nature and high levels of true stress don’t help and even augment mental health issues. Lack of commensurate pay and benefits take their toll on morale as well. A global pandemic, amplified racial tensions, and drastic climate change contribute to the daily anxiety of most people whether they are in fire or not. Our issues are not unique but they are perhaps amplified, and with more potential for danger. In any case here I am now, taking leave from a job I mostly love and mostly need to get by.

I’m convinced my first season on a hotshot crew saved my life. This occupation has provided me structure, financial stability, and camaraderie. In return it has asked of me integrity and accountability. I spent the whole winter before that first season with dark ideas permeating my thoughts. Somehow, two weeks before critical I snapped out of it enough to show up and not quit. It was a tough start but I caught up and halfway through the summer I was walking around laughing with a saw on my back.

Currently it’s as if the dark portion of my mind that usually takes up 5%-20% has almost completely taken over. This part of my brain wants to break me down, call myself an imposter, and ultimately kill me. I am in sink or swim mode; I am trying to save my own life this time. It became clear as the season drew closer that I was not mentally prepared to be the high-functioning firefighter I usually am. I chose to draw back and focus on my personal life rather than risk becoming a liability on the job.

So often we think of our “work life” and “personal life” as being distinct and separate entities. I would like to express that this mentality is highly detrimental to the lives of employees. We cannot adequately perform our duties when there is such a rift between what we ask of firefighters and what we provide to them. Keeping your personal life separate is an old-guard means of avoidance. It also denies the possibility that our two lives can actually intertwine and complement each other. If we talk about the “fire family” and supporting our people, we cannot ignore the high numbers of individuals currently struggling.

In my fight against mental illness I am extremely and perhaps rarely privileged to have a supervisor who convinced me not to resign. I am further lucky that this person’s bosses trust them to make this call. Maintaining my health insurance is proving critical to my efforts at achieving wellness. This time off is not without consequence for me. First and most obviously, I am experiencing a drastic reduction in my usual income without roughly 1000 hours of overtime to bank on. I will miss out on months of on-the-job training and the professional development and networking that happens so fluidly in the field. Thus far my fancy federal health benefits have fallen short as my insurance company keeps rejecting my doctor’s efforts to get me the treatments I need. More personally still, I carry guilt and shame from not showing up this season, including a sense of failure from not exercising my skills and attributes alongside my coworkers. 

One of my greatest fears when I consider my anticipated return to work is that people will find out. They will know I cracked. They may lose trust in my abilities; they may invalidate my strengths in light of my weaknesses. What will future potential supervisors say when they see I took an extended absence during what is sure to be a busy year in fire? I feel the weight of every destructive incident on my back, and I feel comfortable asserting that this is a common feeling. I do not however possess the mental capacity right now to worry about all that. I have made the selfish but necessary call to choose myself in this battle. 

Droughts are deepening, climates are changing, and we always seem to work short-handed. If I am not alone in my mental health crisis, which I am not, how will we continue to effectively manage increasingly larger and more disastrous fires? I would argue that we should not go another shift without providing the support our people need. We must allow our wildland firefighters to show vulnerability in the face of so much global chaos, and seek to do the actual work it takes to remedy this. Furthermore, we need to collectively fight the deep-rooted professional and cultural stigma around mental health. Just as if it were a catastrophic fire we must fight aggressively and with great urgency.


Note from Bill:

Help is available for those feeling really depressed.

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255. Online Chat.
  • Anonymous assistance from the Wildland Firefighter Foundation: 208-336-2996.
  • National Wildland Fire and Aviation Critical Incident Stress Management Website.
  • Code Green Campaign, a first responder oriented mental health advocacy organization.
  • A new organization, Fire Mind, will be dedicated to helping wildland firefighters and expects to be fully operational by June 30, 2021.
  • Would you rather communicate with a counselor by text? If you are feeling really depressed or suicidal, a crisis counselor will TEXT with you. The Crisis Text Line runs a free service. Just text: 741-741

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12 thoughts on “Fight fire aggressively, having provided for mental health first”

  1. I am a mother of a wildland firefighter. My son has struggled with leaving his career but that decision was needed to advance his life. Mental health needs to be addressed NOW! There are too many incrediable people that need help NOW. It is not a selfish act to seek help and take a break from your job. That break may save your life and your crews life.
    Do it NOW,, take that break.

    This momma is praying for all of your safety, mental and physical.

  2. I must admit, for the 40+ years I have been doing this job, right out of high school, I have never thought of this as being an issue. I always looked forward to the start of every season, and looked forward to the end of each one, too. I would do other jobs, go to school or travel in the off-season. After I became permanent, I lost that sense of independence, realizing that I had to work year around and take care of my family, which was a good thing.
    I don’t understand the problem, which is on me, and I want to tell this person in particular to get your stuff together, go back to work, and do your part to help your fellow FF (or Forestry Techs,) succeed and be productive in this endeavor. But that’s not my place. I hope that the help that’s available is successful in getting to everyone affected by this, because we need you out there.

  3. Anonymous,

    Thank you for sharing your struggles. A couple things about your thoughts hit me. I think you are absolutely right, there isn’t “work life” and “personal life.” There’s life. Work isn’t contained in the 9-5, or in your case 0600-2200, and neither is personal confined to the remaining few hours; they are all intermixed. Good on you for having the courage to say that you needed to care for yourself this year, in spite of the challenges that will bring. Also, having experienced a coworker going through something similar -yet undoubtedly different- to what you are going through, I think it’s safe to say that those with whom the truth is shared won’t think any less of you, won’t doubt your strengths. You say it’s selfish to choose yourself in this battle, but I disagree. Sometimes choosing yourself is the best thing you can do for others and the team.

    There might be some employers who would wonder a bit at someone having taken a year off, but not all; there are plenty of reasons for that, and if your resume shows you returned to the same crew you are obviously a valued employee. Almost all prospective employers will call previous supervisors, and it sounds like your current supervisor is a good one and will speak truth about your abilities and character.

    Take care.

  4. I can honestly say that I wish I knew the answer as to why so many firefighters are having mental health issues. Unfortunately, I don’t. I do know that when I signed on with Cal Fire – then CDF as a seasonal firefighter in 1966, that our work week was five days. They forgot to tell me that five nights went along with it. The schedule for permanent personnel wasn’t a heck of a lot better either. If I remember correctly, it was something like 4-3. Four days on and three off. My bring-home pay was $156.00, a month after deductions – one of which was rent for the privilege of living at the fire station five days a week. Pay for permanent staff wasn’t a whole lot better either with a 15% cut in pay when fire season was over. Most of the old captains – foremen back then were former Army or Marine infantry, or Army paratroopers. Almost all were veterans of World War II and/or Korea. There was no rotation off the line in those days – you stayed until the fire was done. I can say though, that my captains took care of me and the rest of the kids on the crews. They taught us how to be firefighters, and how to be part of a team. In short, they taught us how to be adults. Sometimes that instruction included a boot placed in a very sensitive part of the body.
    After a stint in the military and returning to CDF after Vietnam, I always told my folks that if we went on a bad call and they needed help in dealing with it, or with any other part of the job that I would get them that help and that no one else would be the wiser for it. I also told them though, that if I had to get them counseling after every call that just maybe they were probably in the wrong business.
    Sadly, I noticed in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, before I retired that the outfit was changing. There wasn’t the nurturing and caring that I grew up with. Maybe that’s part of the problem – we just don’t care that much about each other any more. Maybe it’s time to get back to being a band of brothers and sisters and, not stepping over bodies to get to the next rung on the ladder. Maybe it’s time for the overhead to start caring about their troops again.

  5. This individual is to be commended for sharing the challenge of being honest regarding their experiences within this honorable profession. I have experienced similar thoughts, emotions, and behaviors during my years of service in professional firefighting. At age 73 now, I recognize elements of what may be considred PTSD, some of which may be related to my fire service career and some of which may have preceeded that career. My respect for this individual’s courage to speak their truth, honor their need for a respite, and willingness to recognize those who offer assistance inspires me to find ways to engage in the efforts to improve the working conditions for current and future firefighters. I appreciate this website and others that provide an means for our collective coices to be heard.

  6. Old Captain, well you about lost me with the “back in my day” that too often seems to be aimed at diminishing the current world that just doesn’t compare. Our world doesn’t compare to yours either. (Thanks for your service.) As far as the one specific mention you make about money, I will just say, that it is well studied that we have less buying power today, which adds a lot of strain, surely neither generation got their due economically for public service.

    Now, moving on to your insightful observations of a cultural shift. Things have definitely changed. There is generally less connection, yet we have all this social media that gives a false sense we still do. Where you err, is assuming that folks somehow care less. I don’t see this. I do see that the ways we show up, often end up falling short. For instance, a fellow employee had a brain tumor 15 years ago. Folks delivered fire wood and such. Probably interacting with him personally and imparting a sense of care and dedication to him. Today, his tumor is back and he is on hospice. He has a nice go fund me account. There are some great one-liner messages on there, publicly proclaiming care and concern. While it’s all nice and organized, I’m sure it’s not the same. Not to mention, I hate to admit it, but seeing the strong level of financial support and number of people “reaching out,” has dissuaded me from bothering him. When in a supposedly less “connected” time, there is no way I would have sat here on my couch talking about it, without showing up at his door and finding something to do and hopefully finding a moment to be connected in real life. Instead, here I am. Talking to myself about how bad I feel about someone else’s terminal cancer. Yes, things have changed, and that is just the tip of the iceberg…(Yes, I realize I should just choose a different path now that I have identified the shortcomings, but please consider I am sharing a raw moment in an attempt to share openly.)

    1. Hi Hoby,
      Didn’t mean to sound facetious with my comments. Yes, “back in my day” we didn’t seem to have the mental health problems that are popping up now. Maybe we did a heck of a lot better job of hiding a big problem back then. Maybe folks are more willing to talk about it now. Maybe we should start screening folks better when they are hired. Some big departments have a mental health exam with a mental health professional along with a physical before hiring. I know there are lots of “Maybe’s”, but darn few good answers. One thing is for sure that we are loosing some good folks for reasons we don’t know about or accept. All one has to do is look at the suicide rates, divorce rates, alcohol and drug use, and general family damage that cops and firefighters endure to say something is terribly wrong.

  7. Anonymous,
    I’m no expert on mental health but first of all kudos for understanding that you needed the help and are taking the steps to receive.
    I work with several folks that have various degrees of mental health trauma from the last number of crazy seasons and at least here in our organization not signing up for deployments/crew work is acceptable for these folks. See while they maybe can’t fill that line or overhead position they are also the first to volunteer to help administer all the other paperwork/supervision/support roles to free up their peers who wish to go and that to support an agency, not just an incident requires support from the person answering phones at headquarters to the guy on the line with a shovel. So look for these opportunities to assist and people will recognize the efforts made – nothing worse than returning from a deployment facing a three week backlog of paperwork and nothing nicer than realizing a peer dealt with a portion of it, to the best of their abilities, without being asked, half the work allowing for easier transitions back to “normal”.

    So do what you can, while getting the help needed. Mental health is not a joke and you’re doing the right thing. I’d way rather work with a person who has some limits than a person who will tell me everything is okay but is not mentally sharp or ready to be on the line as that puts everyone at risk.

  8. Anonymous-
    Our profession is a great metaphor for life in general.
    Our lives are like a wildfire, chaotic and messy. To deal with it- we “Anchor and flank”. Sometimes we back off the line completely.
    We survive to fight the battle another day. Contrary to the baggage that we and society may place upon us, we are all just trying to deal with uncertainty- which is the only thing that is certain in our lives.
    Wildfires have taught me humility over the 40 years that I have engaged them.
    Sometimes it’s that small piece of line right in front of us in the here and now that is the most important part of the whole operation. Tend to the here and now, take care of yourself. Like an old foreman told me long ago, “Time is Nature’s way of preventing everything from happening at once.”

  9. Anonymous, BTDT and got the smokey old rags to prove it. I, too, spent years on the edge of that dark abyss before getting help. I had to leave. There was no support. A struggling employee was considered a liability, a problem that overhead did NOT want to deal with. After years of slow advancement, I simply met the “no rehire” door. But … nobody died, so it was not considered worthy of consideration.
    Document everything. Keep records of counseling sessions of any kind. My files were a grocery bag full of receipts and diaries. They sufficed.
    Fortunately you have been able to reach “permanent” status … many others could not. As for dealing with insurance companies, it may complicate things unless your supervisory chain and your doctors will collaborate and come on board for you, (They should!) but I’ve found a letter on a lawyer’s letterhead works wonders. Nobody wants THAT kind of paperwork. Even the grunts in the insurance companies have their limits.

  10. Some of my thoughts on this.

    Try to be kind and courteous to people you meet, everyone has their own struggles, we are all Humans with our own strengths and weaknesses.

    PTSD can be hard to diagnose and very hard to have a defined set of guidelines as people are different and events causing stress are widely varied. Veterans had a problem getting recognition of the problem and continue to as there is no fast treatment or magic pill to make problem go away. Hard to admit that you might have problems yourself. The reaction I had while watching the movie Only the Brave made me realize I do have a problem. The feeling of your hair standing on end tingling, adrenaline rush causing shaking, deep breathing and knowing I was safe helped. Seeing devastation and destruction; families watching houses burn, cattle strung out and piled up while trying to outrun fire, injured/dead wildlife/livestock can get to you. Recollections come up during quiet times or something triggers a memory.

    Wildland Fire has changed. It is not fun like the Old Days. For me it went downhill going All Risk with the situations and personalities involved, now they got Fire Teams giving health shots. And don’t get me going about retired safety officers from outside the FS. Not what I signed up for.

    For improved mental health and good feelings, I would suggest turning off the television and avoiding the Big Tech Media sites. They seem to be the source of pushing discontent for political gain and taking dollars from you.

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