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.

Memorial service held for fallen firefighter David Ruhl

program cover
The cover for the program.

A memorial service was held Sunday, August 9 in South Dakota at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center for David Ruhl, an engine captain with the Black Hills National Forest in Rapid City who was killed while fighting a wildfire in northern California on July 30, 2015.

Before the ceremony a procession of dozens of emergency vehicles escorted his remains and his family and friends to the service, which lasted a little more than an hour and was attended by hundreds of people, many of them firefighters in uniform.

honor guard
An Honor Guard was on the stage before the service began.

David Ruhl memorial service David Ruhl memorial service

David Ruhl memorial service
A friend and former co-worker of Mr. Ruhl with the Pierre Rural Fire Department gave a moving remembrance of his time with David.

Bagpipes, a traditional part of firefighter funerals and memorial services, were an important part of the ceremony. Below is one example of their work, playing Amazing Grace.

Continue reading “Memorial service held for fallen firefighter David Ruhl”

Procession to the David Ruhl memorial service

The memorial service for David Ruhl was held Sunday, August 9 in Rapid City, South Dakota. Mr. Ruhl’s remains and his family were escorted to the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center by numerous fire trucks, emergency vehicles, and friends of the family.

Mr. Ruhl was killed while fighting a wildfire in northern California on July 30, 2015.

fire engines dave ruhl procession
The engine that Captain Ruhl was assigned to was one of the first vehicles in the procession.

fire engines dave ruhl procession

fire engines dave ruhl procession

fire engines dave ruhl procession

Firefighter killed by falling tree

(Originally posted at 7:30 a.m. PT, August 9, 2015; Updated at 9 p.m. PT, August 9, 2015 with the name of the firefighter.)

Another wildland firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service has died in the line of duty. Early Sunday morning the agency announced that at approximately 5:30 p.m. on August 8 two firefighters were struck by a falling tree during the initial attack on a new fire, the Sierra Fire, in the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit (LTBMU) in California. One was killed and the other was treated and released from a hospital.

The firefighter has been identified as 21-year old Michael “Mike” Hallenbeck of Shingle Springs, California. Mr. Hallenbeck was a member of Organized Crew 36 on the LTBMU.

His family released a statement on Sunday:

Mikey was so excited to become a firefighter. When he first found out he had the position, he spent every day hiking with a pack to prepare. Mikey loved the outdoors and sports. He played football, basketball, soccer, ice hockey, tennis and golf. He also loved to snowboard and hike. He spent the last two ski seasons working for Sierra Ski Resort. Now he has had a greater calling. We are so very proud he stepped up to work hard and be brave to put others before himself. We cannot even begin to express the pain our family is going through and we ask for the respect of our privacy as we go through this devastating ordeal.

This is the second USFS firefighter to die on a wildfire in California in the last 10 days. On July 30 David Ruhl was entrapped by a fire and killed during the initial attack on the Frog Fire on the Modoc National Forest in northeast California.

Our sincere condolences go out to the friends and family of the firefighters that passed away in both of these fatalities.

Fallen firefighter returns to Rapid City

David Ruhl
The aircraft carrying the Ruhl family passes under crossed water streams at the Air Tanker Base at the Rapid City Airport. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Thursday a fallen firefighter returned home. The remains of David (Dave) Ruhl, killed July 30 while fighting a wildfire in northern California, were brought back to Rapid City. His wife and two children were flown Wednesday morning from Rapid City to Redding, California to receive the remains that had been transported in a procession from Mt. Shasta to the Northern California Service Center, a firefighting hub in that part of the state. Then the family got back on the King Air operated by the State of South Dakota and flew back to Rapid City.

Many firefighters were present at the Air Tanker Base to honor David Ruhl. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
Many firefighters were present at the Air Tanker Base to honor David Ruhl. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

After it landed, the aircraft taxied to the Air Tanker Base and passed under crossed water streams provided by two of the airport’s crash rescue fire engines. The plane was met by dozens of firefighters standing at attention. A member of the Honor Guard first exited the aircraft carrying the cremated remains of Mr. Ruhl and transferred them to one of the firefighters. Then Mrs. Ruhl and the two children came down the aircraft stairs and passed through two rows of saluting firefighters as they made their way to the green Forest Service engine in which Mr. Ruhl served as Captain.

David Ruhl
The remains of David Ruhl are transferred at the Rapid City Airport. Photo by Bill Gabbert
Dave Ruhl family
The Ruhl family walks through a corridor formed by saluting firefighters. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The engine then became part of a procession that began with about a dozen engines and other emergency vehicles that had been parked at the Air Tanker Base. As it made its way out of the airport it picked up at least another two dozen other vehicles, mostly engines, that were waiting in the “cell phone” parking area. Making their way down to Highway 44 one of the Tatanka Hotshots’ crew carriers tagged on, and when the procession passed the Rapid Valley Fire Department even more joined.  Eventually the family was escorted to their home in Rapid City.

Other events that are scheduled:

Sunday, August 9, 2015 – Procession and Memorial Service In Rapid City, South Dakota: A procession will begin at 1 p.m. from the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, 520 Cathedral Drive in Rapid City (map) to the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center (map). The route will go north along 5th Street and conclude in the west parking lot of the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.

Visitation will be at 2 p.m. at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, 444 Mt. Rushmore Rd., Rapid City, SD 57701, followed by a memorial service which will begin at 3 p.m.

The memorial service will be streamed live on the internet on South Dakota Public Broadcasting at www.sdpb.org/live.

Monday, August 10, Funeral: Mr. Ruhl’s funeral will be held at 10 a.m. at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

More information about the fatality.

Regional Forester summarizes California wildfire activity

The information below was written by Randy Moore, the Regional Forester for the U.S. Forest Service region that includes California. Written Tuesday evening, August 4, it is an update for USFS retirees about the wildfire situation in the state.


“…We have had over 14 thousand lightning strikes that resulted in 250 fires that were started within he last week. Appears we are in it for the long haul and will be very conscious of fatigue and situational awareness.

Deputy Regional Forester, Jeanne Wade Evans, and I are currently in Alturas visiting with Modoc employees in the aftermath of the Dave Ruhl’s fatality on the Frog Fire. We have Bob Housman’s NIMO team here supporting this incident within an incident and helping us coordinate with the Black Hills Forest, where Dave was employed. Dave’s Memorial is planned for Sunday, August 9th. This is a sober reminder of the risks of the work we are doing every day. We in-briefed with the Safety Learning Team yesterday that was deployed by the Chief’s office and are making sure our employees are getting the critical incident stress support they need. I am heading to the Six Rivers Forest today.

Over the last 72 hours, we deployed 9 federal incident management teams (IMTs) to our fires in California. All our federal IMTs are committed except one that we are holding in Southern California. We continue to receive support from other regions, our California partners, and the National Guard. We are in a high level of communication with all our partners as well as our field leadership. I have been hosting Agency Administrator calls daily to keep a check on the pulse of what our Forest leadership challenges are and know they are fully engaged with the communities and the teams. We are also bringing in additional agency administrator support from other regions, to make sure our leadership gets the relief they need to be engaged in the days ahead. I also briefed with Bill Van Bruggen’s Area Command on Sunday to ensure we have the highest level of coordination and support to all the Forests, Teams and communities in the area of the northern fire complexes.

We have been preparing for months for the possibility of this event knowing that we are in the fourth year of drought and the outlook was not good. I believe we are in the best position we can be, knowing there will be many challenging days ahead. Please forward on your questions and thoughts, so that we can make the most of the partnership with all you retirees as well. We have staff focused on all the key partnerships in the state and that includes you all. I will get these notes out to you through Mike Rogers as often as possible and I really appreciate Mike’s willingness to help communicate out to all of you.

Additional information you may be interested in follows:

• With significant fire activity occurring in multiple geographical areas, an increase in incident management teams being committed and an ever increasing number of shared resources being committed to large fires nationally, the National Multi Agency Coordinating Group (NMAC) will move the National Preparedness Level to 4 (PL4). Northern California GACC is at PL 5 and a high priority focus.
• Good progress was made on many of the fires as Incident Management Teams and resources move into place throughout the Region
• Orders are being filled by GACC’s across the country and are arriving on incidents for deployment here in California. This includes T1 crews that are always in demand and T3 engines and other support.
• Special consideration is being given to type and kind of resources being used in wilderness and primitive areas to result in the best possible outcomes
• Both GACC’s are doing a tremendous job of mobilizing resources and providing intelligence to incoming forces
• An additional in briefing and area orientation site has been set up at the Wildland Fire Training Center
• Long term planning is underway on large incidents that will require lengthy control time
• Area Command coordination is being organized to best utilize resources available to the Six Rivers and Shasta-Trinity National Forests
• Forest Supervisors, Agency Administrators, and Forest Staff are working alongside Fire Management Staff in all aspects of fire suppression efforts
• PAO staff is fielding a significant number of media inquiries
• Regional Office FAM Staff has made contact with Timber Industry representative to open lines of communication and answer questions
• All 18 National Forests are now communicating with the public via social media”