Suicide rate among wildland firefighters is “astronomical”

From 2015 to 2016, 52 wildland firefighters took their own lives.

The number of wildland firefighters who have resorted to suicide is shocking — 52 in a two year period, 2015 to 2016. According to Nelda St. Clair of the Bureau of Land Management so far this year there have been another 16.

Wildland firefighting is a niche within the firefighting world. High rates of structural firefighters taking their own lives have been known for years, but these kinds of “astronomical” numbers, as described by Ms. St. Clair, in a much smaller population is stunning. There are only about 13,000 wildland firefighters in the five major federal land management agencies, along with several thousand others working for state and local agencies. It is likely that most of them personally know a firefighting brother or sister who succumbed to what might be called an epidemic.

Assuming for a moment that there are 17,000 wildland firefighters in the United States, approximately 0.3 percent of them took their own lives in 2015 and 2016 — a shocking percentage.

Most firefighters in general, and in particular, wildland firefighters, have a macho, can-do attitude, regardless of their gender. Just give them an objective, and they will figure out how to get it done, with little or no outside help. This can carry over into their personal lives and mental state. When the fire season is over their environment may shift from being part of a close brotherhood working with their buddies for long hours toward a common goal, to something completely different. The reduction in adrenalin and accomplishment of important tasks is more difficult for some to adjust to than others. Suicide rates can rise during the wildland fire off-season.

The fact that a national publication, The Atlantic, has published an in-depth article on the issue is an indicator of the seriousness of this problem. I suggest you read the entire article, but here is an excerpt:

…It’s hard to quantify both completed and attempted suicide rates in populations that aren’t prone to talk about mental health, but both factors are known to be high among “structure” firefighters—those who fight fires in buildings—and members of the military who face similar traumatic, high-stress situations as wildland firefighters. Jeff Dill, a captain at a fire station in Inverness, Illinois, and the founder of the Firefighter Behavioral-Health Alliance, which tracks firefighter suicides, says firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. In a 2015 study on suicide risk in firefighters, half of those who responded reported that they’d contemplated suicide.

Those concepts align with the wildland reports: St. Clair says they’ve lost five smoke jumpers to suicide in the last seven years, and had two in-the-line-of-duty deaths in the same period. But while structure and wildland firefighters are similar, the groups aren’t perfect analogs, which is why it’s particularly hard to address some of the most insidious risks for wildland firefighters. Urban firefighters, and people who fight structure fires, will usually have year-round work, health insurance, and mandatory trauma training. Their support system is fundamentally different…

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center’s Spring 2017 edition of Two More Chains was dedicated to this issue. An excerpt:

…In researching suicide in the wildland fire service for this issue of Two More Chains, it has been brought to our attention that, in some cases, a stigma regarding employee suicide has been observed not so much among young firefighters—who, it is said, are more open to addressing their emotions—but among some more senior wildland fire and agency managers who are apparently uncomfortable addressing the topic of mental health.

Unfortunately, we have learned that, in at least one instance, a fire manager believed that a firefighter who had died by suicide should not be entitled to an honor guard or a memorial stone in the Wildland Firefighter Foundation monument at NIFC, “because it would dishonor those who died innocently.” Similarly, we have heard about fire managers who have declined offers of free critical stress debriefings for their staff after a coworker suicide—without even asking their staff.

It’s also been brought to our attention that employees have been directed not to send emails that contain information about someone dying by suicide or to mention it in staff meetings—even though the victim’s family has been open about their family member’s cause of death.

We hope and believe that these are isolated incidents. That they are exceptions to the positive efforts that our fire agencies are currently pursuing—reflected throughout the input from our agency SMEs that is shared in this issue’s “SME Insights and Info” document.

By openly addressing the topic of mental health among our employees we can embrace the notion that this issue is no different than any other injury or disease.

We need to help ensure that all of our managers and senior leaders are on board with this enlightened perspective. We should not blame the victim, or treat the person in pain as “weak,” or otherwise refuse to acknowledge their mental health problems.

To be sure, if safety is truly our top priority, then it is our duty to take care of all of our people…

Two More Chains highlights work that is being done on this issue by several people, some of whom are intimately familiar with wildland firefighting. Patty O’Brien worked for 10 years on the Lolo Interagency Hotshot Crew and has a total of 15 years’ experience as a wildland firefighter. She is a fifth year PhD candidate in Clinical Psychology at the University of Montana.

Kim Lightley writes about how she experienced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after nine of her fellow crewmembers of the Prineville Hotshots were killed on the 1994 South Canyon Fire along with five other firefighters. After dealing with depression and survivor’s guilt for two years she sought counseling, which helped.

She wrote in Two More Chains:

When I was in the depths of PTSD—because I had all the symptoms—it would have been really awesome if somebody would have come up to me and said: ‘Hey, what you’re experiencing right now is normal, because what you experienced is very abnormal’. If I had heard that, I think I would have felt less crazy.

Today she is the Critical Incident Response Program Management Specialist for the U.S. Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management program.

Amanda Marsh’s husband Eric Marsh was one of the 19 firefighters that perished on the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013. She established the Eric Marsh Foundation which is committed to serving those directly affected by wildland line-of-duty deaths, as well as living wildland firefighters and their families. We asked for her insight:

It saddens me greatly knowing that our wildland firefighters are suffering. In 2015 I came very close to ending my life. I have PTSD and we are not talking about this enough in the fire service, wildland or structure.

PTSD is cumulative. Every traumatic event builds upon the last one, creating a situation where sometimes we feel so hopeless and so helpless that taking our lives seems like the only way out.

At the end of the season the fire family often disburses and the support that was so available during the fire season is no longer present in the way it was. We must begin talking about PTSD in every department, every agency. Our wildland firefighters deserve better, they deserve the ability to discuss openly and without fear of judgement when the stresses of the job begin to compound. I am talking about PTSD, I am talking about suicide openly because it is the right thing to do.

There is help out there. Call the Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255). We also offer help through the Eric Marsh Foundation for Wildland Firefighters by helping wildland firefighters get treatment for PTSD. You are not alone. There are many of us who know how you feel. You are loved and you are seen and you are valid.

Further reading

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center solicited and received insight from six wildland fire agency subject matter experts about the wildland firefighter suicide issue.

Help

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Brian.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Interview with Amanda Marsh

Amanda talked about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, her late husband Eric, the movie that will be out in a week, horses, and what it is like being the spouse of a wildland firefighter.

If you are having trouble viewing the video above, you can see it on YouTube.

The version above is 26 minutes long; a 6-minute version is HERE.

This interview with Amanda Marsh was filmed the day after the red carpet screening in Phoenix of the movie “Only the Brave”, which is about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a 20-person crew of wildland firefighters. In 2013, 19 members of the crew, including her husband Eric, perished in the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona.

You might think the film is solely about the tragedy, but most of it is about the firefighters, their families, relationships, and building a crew.

We are very appreciative of Amanda for spending time with us. Three days before, she was in Los Angeles for the red carpet premiere and 14 hours before we filmed this she was at the Phoenix event. It does not show, but she was tired and said she was glad that her official appearances related to the movie were over.

The film will be released nationwide October 20, 2017. We reviewed it on October 11.

Be sure and catch the very end of the interview.

Helping others is one way Amanda Marsh deals with the loss of her firefighter husband

Eric Marsh was the Crew Superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots; he and 18 other members of the crew were entrapped and killed on an Arizona wildfire in 2013.

Four years ago her best friend and husband was killed on a wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona along with 18 other firefighters ranging in age from 21 to 36. In the years since June 30, 2013 she has experienced what every spouse dreads or does not want to think about — losing your partner in life. Below, Amanda Marsh reveals what she went through and what she found on the other side, including a way to help others who find themselves in a similar dark place.

Bill Gabbert

********

By Amanda Marsh

Adaptation has become the word that best describes my life post Yarnell Hill Fire.  I woke the morning of June 30th, 2013 with a mind to do my regular Sunday chores.  Feed horses and dogs, clean up the house and work a little with a client’s horse in the afternoon.  When I lay my head down that night in my best friend’s bed, my life had been completely shattered.  Every time I tried to close my eyes all I could see were 19 bodies on the hill and one of them belonged to my husband.  The body I knew so well.  My best friend’s Saint Bernard kept putting his huge nose in my face until I finally got out of bed and walked onto the back porch.

Amanda and Eric Marsh
Amanda and Eric. Photo supplied by Amanda Marsh.

My parents were trying to get to Prescott from southern California but had been rerouted all the way through Phoenix because of the fire.  I sat on the porch and started calling every number in my phone, but everyone was asleep.  It was midnight and their lives weren’t shattered like mine.  Their husband’s body wasn’t lying on Yarnell Hill with the life ravaged out of it.

I sat with my knees pulled up to my chin and I cried and I cried and I cried.  Was this possibly real?  Was I having a very bad dream I would wake from soon?  I looked out over the darkness of Prescott and I wondered how in the world I would ever get through losing so many amazing souls.  How could Jesse be gone and Clay?  How could Travy and Turby be dead?  These were the men who fueled many of Eric’s stories about his fire life.  These were the men I knew would be there in a heartbeat if they could, how could they be gone?  I was 38 years old, and in the blink of an eye, the change of the wind, I had become the eldest widow of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

Eric Marsh FoundationOf course, I didn’t realize it then, but that night was the start of the Eric Marsh Foundation for Wildland Firefighters.  That night and the horrid days and nights that followed.  My painful experiences, burying my husband, the funerals of our friends, wanting to die, fighting to stay sober, the anger that swept through me and never left, pushing everyone away, fighting to stay in control of my life, fighting, fighting, fighting.  These experiences pulled me in the direction of wanting to be of service to others who were going through the same thing.  I needed to help others in the wildland community and I needed to do it in my husband’s name.

I wanted to create a legacy of giving in Eric’s name because that is who he was in life.  Our shared sober life meant that both of us had done things in our pasts we were not proud of and one of the ways Eric chose to make those wrongs right was to give people a chance to prove themselves on the crew.  He gave jobs to people others would never have even considered.  Eric had been given a second and third chance in his fire life and he needed to pay that forward, and he did, often.  I was their advocate, pulling for the underdogs through the fire season.  Losing that way of life hit me so hard and I needed to create something good, I needed something amazing in my life or I was not going to be able to hold on.  I needed something to work on, I needed to watch something grow out of the ash.  I needed to turn my pain, my empathy and compassion and my experiences into something positive to help others.

The Eric Marsh Foundation for Wildland Firefighters came into fruition and I began raising money to donate to next of kin of wildland firefighters killed in the line of duty.  One of the first next of kin we helped was Colleen Ricks.  Her husband Brandon was a helicopter pilot who perished on a prescribed fire when his helicopter went down in 2015.  I didn’t have Colleen’s contact information and so I called the church where Brandon’s services were just held and spoke to the pastor.  He gave me Colleen’s number.  I dialed the number, expecting to leave a message but a woman answered.  Her voice was heavy and sad, I knew it must be her.  I began to cry.  Through my tears I told her who I was and why I was calling and we stayed on the phone for a long time, both of us crying for each other, ourselves and for Brandon and Eric.  To this day Colleen is one of my best friends.  We understand each other in ways only widows can.

Our mission is simple: To assist next-of-kin of wildland firefighters killed in the line of duty and wildland firefighters with PTSD.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has been a long standing companion in my life.  From my first tragic loss in 1983 when my best friends were brutally murdered to my loss in the Yarnell Hill Fire, PTSD has never left my side.  I have had to adapt to its presence and get help to overcome the sometimes debilitating effects of its uninvited companionship.  I have a heart for others living with PTSD and for the families who surround these individuals.  The Eric Marsh Foundation for Wildland Firefighters has been able to help wildland firefighters with PTSD by paying for their treatment and also by utilizing my history to lend emotional support to individuals who need it, both family of and wildland firefighters themselves.  My 11 years of sobriety has also helped wildland firefighters struggling with drug and alcohol problems.  I want to be of service and I want my experiences to give strength and hope to others.  What good is any of it if it is only helpful to me?

We believe there is so much need in the wildland community that there is room for us all to help each other and to give to each other.  Our foundation supports having many organizations that support and administer to the wildland community, the more the better.   We are always looking for volunteers to help us at events and for those wishing to have events for us.

The Eric Marsh Foundation for Wildland Firefighters comes from the heart of Prescott, from the home base of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.  The place Eric and I met and fell in love, where my recovery and my life began.  Where I buried my husband and my friends, where my community of firefighters, police officers and all other first responders have picked me up time and time again.  Prescott is our home and we are proud to continue to serve our community and to grow outward from here.  Prescott is our home base and our foundation is important to the greater community of Prescott.  The Yarnell Hill Fire became a world event, but the Eric Marsh Foundation has grown here in this community which his given so much.  This community lost the guys, too.  They felt the deep impact of the loss and they cried with us.  We matter to our community and to the wildland community.

Although we call ourselves the Eric Marsh Foundation, we respect all the fallen Granite Mountain Hotshots because they were all amazing men and deserve recognition for their lives and for their ultimate sacrifice.  We are united behind all wildland firefighters, first responders and all their families.  We have chosen to use the Granite Mountain Hotshot logo to reflect this respect and this love that our foundation has for the entire Granite Mountain Hotshot crew and all wildland firefighters.

If you need us, we are here.  We love our wildland community and we are staying strong to be of service in the best possible way.  We understand what you are going through and we are here for you and for your families.  Please visit our website: Ericmarshfoundation.org and follow us on Facebook at Eric Marsh Foundation for Wildland Firefighters.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots live on in our hearts forever, they taught me so much, and they always guide my path as I make decisions that continue to honor them and their values.  Esse Quam Videri– To be, rather than to seem.  For them, with them, love them, we will honor them forever.

Granite Mountain logoAndrew Ashcraft – Age: 29
Robert Caldwell – Age: 23
Travis Carter – Age: 31
Dustin Deford – Age: 24
Christopher MacKenzie – Age: 30
Eric Marsh – Age: 43
Grant McKee – Age: 21
Sean Misner – Age: 26
Scott Norris – Age: 28
Wade Parker – Age: 22
John Percin- Age: 24
Anthony Rose- Age: 23
Jesse Steed- Age: 36
Joe Thurston- Age: 32
Travis Turbyfill – Age: 27
William Warneke – Age: 25
Clayton Whitted – Age: 28
Kevin Woyjeck – Age: 21
Garret Zuppiger – Age: 27