The awkward silence when the season ends

Lone Peak Hotshots
Lone Peak Hotshots. Screenshot from their 2020 video.

Wildland firefighters on crews that are often deployed on endless 14-day assignments far from home may become acclimated to the high energy adrenaline-fueled environment. They are part of a team working toward the same clear objective, constructing fireline, installing hose lays, or mopping up. The goal is usually very obvious, and when done they can look back and see what they accomplished while part of a group that over months together could complete each other’s sentences, know what each would do when faced with a pulse-elevating situation, or deal with boredom while waiting for a ride back to fire camp.

When the fire season is over, their environment goes through a metamorphose. Almost overnight they may find themselves with their spouse, significant other, children, parents, non-fire friends, or, alone — a completely different situation from the previous six months. Some firefighters adapt more easily than others. Those that don’t, may experience mental health issues and mild or severe depression. Spouses or children of the often-absent firefighter may also show symptoms.

In the last five years we have learned that the suicide rates of wildland firefighters is “astronomical”, according to information developed by Nelda St. Clair of the Bureau of Land Management in 2017. It is high even when compared with structural firefighters, which is also higher than the general population.

As we approach the off season for wildland firefighters who are employed less than full time, if you know someone who seems very depressed, it is OK to ask them if they are thinking about suicide. Some people think this will spur suicide attempts but that is not accurate. Encouraging them to talk could be the first step leading them to safety.

This video encourages that communication. (I’m told that some of the people in the video are YouTubers. It features Hannah Hart, Liza Koshy, Markiplier, Meredith Foster, Orion Carloto, Remi Cruz, Shannon Beveridge, Tyler Oakley, and Tyler Posey.)

Members of the military returning from deployment can also have difficulties readjusting to life back at home. A Department of Defense webpage has information on the subject that appears to be directed toward the spouse. Here is an excerpt.

“Depression and Suicide Prevention

“Depression can happen to anyone – resulting in long-term feelings that affect an individual’s mood and daily activities. Service members may be facing challenges during reintegration that seem completely overwhelming, but understanding the warning signs for depression and suicide can help you intervene and get the them the help that they need. Signs to be aware of include:

      • “A range of emotions and changes in personality, including repeated and intense feelings of sadness, anxiety, hopelessness or pessimism
      • A loss of interest in life or hobbies and prolonged periods of crying or sleeping
      • Substance abuse or withdrawal from friends and family
      • Displays of emotional distress in online activity
      • Excessive feelings of guilt, shame or a sense of failure
      • Physical symptoms like weight loss or weight gain, decreased energy, headaches, digestive issues or back pain
      • Talking about dying or seeking information about death.”


Help is available for those feeling really depressed or suicidal.

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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.

10 thoughts on “The awkward silence when the season ends”

  1. I talked about this with a Navy Captain who told me about his temporary sadness and bewilderment after he retired from the Navy.

    He said for him, he started writing a book.

    i.e. Everybody Needs a Drishti, something Healthy to Focus on.

    I think that what the US gov, and the states, and the employer agencies need to offer is REAL education support that dovetails with the fire-fighter’s schedule.

    i.e. education that gives the fire-fighter Real Options. In fire-fighting, and OUTSIDE the field of fire-fighting.

    “What are you doing ?”
    “I’m studying to be an Orthopedic Surgeon.”

    I found out at about age 45, when a woman friend described her husband’s surgeries, it became clear that I would have made a real good orthopedic surgeon. She described cutting and construction operations that I had been doing for 20 years, with jewelry and electronics.

    That is a little late. Those options need to be made real for the People that are also the Fire-fighters, and are usually in their 20’s and 30’s.

    In other words, financed outright, just as if they came from the “right family”.

    Often fire-fighters do not come from wealthy families, but that does not need to limit their career after their fire-fighting years.

    Many / most / All /each of them has the ability to obtain a PhD or MD in one or more relevant employment ready fields. You might have to down-shift that to a technical bachelor’s or master’s.

    The point being to offer them all the Real education they can stomach.

    It could be Better Ice Road Trucking (e.g. where drivers team up in 4’s or something to carry their own rescue vehicles, hardwares, and North Pole rigging equipment).

    I guess at a lot of universities and colleges this would mean the Winter Quarter classes would dovetail with the fire-fighting schedule in the Northern Hemisphere. They would have to offer a degree program that facilitated the 1 semester a year approach to getting a degree.

  2. In the afternoon of 12 September 2004, I was at the station and my wonderful wife of ten days dropped by. She had no sooner walked in the door than the All-Call followed by the alert tones came over the radio announcing that the Columbia Helitack had been burned over in a fire in the Tuolumne River canyon and that there were injuries. Her first words were to ask what had happened and I told her that it was a bad area with lots of wind shift and that they may have had fire below them. Wasn’t that much longer and the announcement was made that there was a fatality as well. My wife looked at me and asked if I could haven gotten out of there. I mumbled something that I wouldn’t have gotten myself or my crew into that situation and looked away. She then said that she didn’t ask me that, she asked if I could I have gotten out of there. With my knees shot as well as my back my answer was probably not. She gave me that look and said she wanted me out and wanted it ASAP. I finished six more shifts and called it a career with 38 years and 9 months in the business. I have to say that I knew it was time and had known it for a couple of years. It’s hard though to walk away from this job as you all know, even if we can no longer safely do it. After I retired I didn’t go through any withdrawals, mood swings, or anything like that. And, surprisingly actually didn’t even miss it all that much once I came to terms that it was time. One night about three months after I hung it up I awoke at 0200, in the morning after dreaming I’d missed a dispatch. I grabbed the phone and called dispatch – a friend of mine was working and when I said, “Leslie, it’s me and I’ve missed the call – where is it at.” there was silence for about ten seconds and then Leslie said, “You’re retired – go back to sleep.” I’m an old man now and time is starting to thin the ranks of those men and women I worked with. I can say that I do miss them. One thing I always say though, when asked is, “Damn! It was fun!”.

  3. Spot on about the “awkward silence”. Nobody want’s to talk about the let down, the dreams, the staring at the wall, I guess because we are supposed to be the macho hero firefighters who can deal with anything. Good stuff from the military because there are many parallels between soldiers and firefighters. Both occupations deal with situations that can kill them, although I would still rather be fighting mother nature than enemy soldiers, kudos to our military folks. The term PTSD gets overused but firefighters definitely face at least a mild form of it. And having also just recently retired doesn’t mean all the dreams and other aspects of depression disappear. Hopefully they fade with time. And great point about maintaining lookouts and communications during the off season. Our feelings are real, talk about them.

  4. There’s always the Southern Hemisphere.

    Tasmania & Australia may be feeling a little nervous right about now.

  5. The fat lady has yet to sing in southern California. While the north prepares for hurricane force winds and flooding, SoCal remains in drought and ready to burn. “Fingers crossed”.

  6. A timely message.

    The fire season is exhausting, but carries purpose, friendship, and support. I can relate to being slammed all season, only to return home and find myself staring at a wall. The winter season brings some of the most depressing times of the year, especially around christmas and new year.

    Lookouts and communication aren’t just for the fire season. We watch each other’s backs during the season. Keep watch when the season is done.

    Some years ago I spent time with a long-time friend one evening, on July 4, and we went our ways. The next day I received a call from an emergency room. My long-time friend left us that July night, went up on the mountain, and shot himself. They’d just brought him in. I’ve second guessed myself many times. What did I miss? What if? What could I have? How? And of course the unanswerable: why?

    The only thing I know for sure is that too-late is a thing and the regret of wondering what one might have done, lasts a lifetime.

    Reach out. It’s the life you save.

  7. Good stuff, Bill. End of career depression is a real thing for WFF’s, too. I’m winding down at 52 years in the biz. Last season on assignments was 2019, but still consulting. The focus and dedication of a wildland fire career is difficult to walk away from, or slowly slow down.


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