Wildfire smoke contains microbes, a fact that’s often ignored, but one that may have important health repercussions.
In 2008, Captain Matthew P. Moore, a firefighter with the Murrieta, California Fire Department, died after being infected with a rare brain-eating amoeba that usually lives in soil. A biopsy showed his brain had been invaded by the parasite Balamuthia mandrillaris which enters the body through the lower respiratory tract or through open wounds. It is believed Captain Moore inhaled the parasite while fighting wildfires.
In an article published December 18 in Science, Leda Kobziar and George Thompson called the attention of the scientific community to the health impacts of wildfire smoke’s microbial content.
Smoky skies caused by wildland fires are becoming seasonal norms, especially in some parts of the United States and Australia. In 2020, wildfires in the Western U.S. set new records and led to extremely unhealthy or hazardous air quality levels for many weeks in a row.
It’s well-documented that exposure to wildfire smoke can damage the heart and lungs. Respiratory allergic and inflammatory diseases, including asthma and bronchitis, are also worsened by smoke exposure.
“The health impact of inhaling wildfire smoke increases dramatically during high-emissions wildfires and with long exposure,” said Kobziar, associate professor of Wildland Fire Science at the University of Idaho. “Yet, the risk of infection to the respiratory tract after this exposure is frequently overlooked.”
What role do microbes in wildfire smoke play in the spread of disease?
Wildland fire is a source for bioaerosol, airborne particles made of fungal and bacterial cells and their metabolic byproducts. Once suspended in the air, particles smaller than 5 μm can travel hundreds or even thousands of miles. Their movement depends on the fire behavior and the atmospheric conditions.
Bacteria and fungi can be transported in these wildland fire smoke emissions. The consequences for more immediate populations, such as firefighters on the front line who often spend up to 14 consecutive days in smoky conditions, are likely greater given that microbial concentration in smoke is higher near the source of a fire. For example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counts firefighting as an at-risk profession for coccidioidomycosis, an infection caused by a pathogenic fungus well known to be aerosolized when soils are disturbed.
“We don’t know how far and which microbes are carried in smoke,” said Thompson, associate professor of Clinical Medicine at UC Davis. “Some microbes in the soil appear to be tolerant of, and even thrive under, high temperatures following wildfires.”
As Kobziar explained, “At the scale of a microbe, fire behavior research has shown that heat flux is highly variable, so it may be that many microbes aren’t even subjected to the high temperatures for very long. They may also be protected in small clusters of particulate matter.”
The potential for wildland fire’s microbial content to affect humans who breathe in smoke, especially from high-emissions wildfires or for multiple weeks, is appreciable. How far and which microbes are transported in smoke under various conditions are critical unknowns, but the relevance of these questions is increasing with longer wildfire seasons and higher severity trends.
Smoke exposure levels at the Creek Fire ranged from hazardous to unhealthy for 30 days
(From Bill: Wildland firefighters and people who live in areas where long-term fires are common, such as Northern California and the Northwest, know that smoke can persist for days or weeks and can cause or aggravate respiratory and other medical issues. But knowing it exists and having peer reviewed quantifiable data proving it is hazardous to health, are two different things. Science like this could lead to changes that may benefit firefighters and the general public.)
In September and October the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) deployed two staff members to serve as air resource advisors at wildfires in Oregon and California.
Air resource advisors were fully integrated into the wildfire incident management teams to provide insights into understanding and predicting smoke exposure levels. The individuals interacted with stakeholders, including air quality regulators, fire personnel, public health practitioners, and community residents. A primary aspect of this engagement was to forecast smoke levels for areas immediately affected by fires and generate a daily smoke outlook to keep stakeholders informed about prevailing smoke levels. 2020 is the first year during which the CDC worked with the Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program and deployed staff members as air resource advisors for wildfire incidents.
From August 31 to September 14, 2020, one CDC staff member supported wildfires in central Oregon’s Cascade Range east of Sisters, which included the Beachie Creek, Holiday Farm, Lionshead, and Riverside fires. Strong east winds across the Cascade Mountains resulted in more than 560,000 acres of fire growth from September 7 through 10.
Another CDC staff member was deployed to the Creek Fire from September 20 to October 5, 2020. This fire near North Fork, California started September 4 and grew to 193,000 acres during its first week; as of December 3, 2020, the fire had burned 379,895 acres.
During these two deployments, several public health concerns came to light. Of note, although smoke from wildfires drifted long distances and affected downwind communities, the brunt of poor air quality was observed in communities adjacent to wildfire incidents. For example, communities near the fires in California and Oregon experienced high concentrations of PM2.5, as measured by air quality monitors, resulting in “Unhealthy” to “Hazardous” conditions, as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Air Quality Index.
Fire personnel who camped and rested between work shifts at nearby fire camps (North Fork, California and Sisters, Oregon) were also exposed to poor air quality levels. These fire camp exposures contribute to higher overall cumulative smoke exposure and, along with other occupational risk factors such as fatigue and stress, could limit recovery that is much needed for fire personnel while away from the active fire perimeter. In addition, environmental hazards such as extreme heat and higher concentrations of ambient carbon monoxide were prevalent during days with heavy smoke and after extreme fire growth days. These hazards added a layer of complexity to fire response efforts and might have limited fire personnel recovery between work shifts.
From: Navarro K, Vaidyanathan A. — Notes from the Field: Understanding Smoke Exposure in Communities and Fire Camps Affected by Wildfires— California and Oregon, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:1873–1875. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6949a4
Originally published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
While research has not yet been conducted on all the hazards and risks associated with the wildland firefighting job, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is asked numerous questions about the hazards of fighting wildland fires. This blog is designed to answer some of those questions.
What Is in Wildland Fire Smoke?
Wildland fire smoke is a mixture of gases and particles such as carbon monoxide (CO) and respirable particulate matter (PM) that may cause short- and long-term health effects. Wildland firefighters can be exposed to smoke at wildfires and “prescribed” fires (planned and intentionally ignited low-intensity fires). The contents of and exposure to wildfire smoke can vary greatly throughout the day depending on the vegetation type, fire behavior, and meteorological conditions. Research has shown that wildland firefighters have been exposed to gases and particles such as CO and PM above the occupational exposure limits during both wildland and prescribed fires. While burning vegetation is the primary exposure of concern for wildland and prescribed fires, when fires burn in the wildland urban interface (WUI, where wildland vegetation and urban areas meet) the smoke may contain compounds that are more similar to what structural firefighters encounter. Wildland firefighters will often suppress these fires and may be exposed to some of the hazardous compounds of WUI smoke such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), flame retardants, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). However, wildland firefighters do not have the benefit of wearing some of the personal protective equipment (PPE) typically used in a structural response (e.g., self-contained breathing apparatus [SCBA], turnout gear) that could provide protection from these compounds. Additionally, wildland firefighters may be exposed to smoke at firefighting base camps (incident command posts) where they eat and rest while off-duty.
What Do We Know About the Health of Wildland Firefighters?
Cardiovascular and Lung Health
In the past decade, several studies have linked exposure to wildfire smoke to short-term health effects, such as increases in inflammation and respiratory effects, for example, lung function decline.[i] However, these studies have only examined the health effects across a few shifts or a single fire season. It is not clear if these adverse health effects continue after fire season and whether they worsen after several seasons of fighting fires. Researchers suspect that exposure to particulate matter and other contaminants from wildfire smoke, heavy physical exertion, existing health and behavior risk factors, and cardiovascular strain could contribute to sudden cardiac events for wildland firefighters. Recent research indicated that wildland firefighters may be at an increased risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease and lung cancer than the general public from career exposure to wildfire smoke.[ii]
The strenuous work, long work shifts, close living and working conditions, limited access to hygiene supplies, and a workforce that responds to incidents all over the country on short notice to wildland fire incidents may be conducive for the transmission of infectious diseases, including SARS-CoV-2. Exposure to air pollutants in wildfire smoke can irritate the lungs, cause inflammation, alter immune function, and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections, possibly including COVID-19.[iii] In addition to potentially making firefighters more vulnerable to getting COVID-19, inflammation in the respiratory tract due to wildfire smoke might also increase the risk of developing more severe outcomes for those with COVID-19.[iv] Wildland firefighters should implement the recommendations described in the CDC’s FAQ for Wildland Firefighters to prevent infection and spread of COVID-19.
Heat-Related Illness and Rhabdomyolysis
Due to the nature of their work, firefighters are at risk of developing severe heat-related illness (such as heat stroke) and rhabdomyolysis (muscle breakdown).[v],[vi] Delays in diagnosis and initiating treatment of these illnesses increase the risk of permanent muscle damage. Since 2010, 62 cases of severe rhabdomyolysis among wildland firefighters have been reported to a passive surveillance system designed to capture fatalities and certain types of injuries and illnesses including rhabdomyolysis. The actual number of cases is likely higher due to underreporting and inconsistencies in reporting requirements and systems. Prior to 2010, no cases were reported.
Wildland firefighters work around power tools and heavy equipment that produce noise levels that are hazardous to hearing. In addition to hearing loss, noise exposure may also cause tinnitus (ringing/buzzing in ears), increased heart rate, fatigue, and interfere with verbal communication. Researchers from NIOSH and the United States Forest Service (USFS) evaluated personal noise measurements on 156 wildland firefighters conducting various training and fire suppression tasks, and reported that 85 of the 174 measurements were above the NIOSH maximum allowable daily dose[vii]. A follow-up study showed use of hearing protection was mixed; while almost all the wildland firefighters were aware of the noise in their environment and potential risk, very few were enrolled in hearing conservation programs.
What Are NIOSH Researchers Doing to Better Understand Exposures and Health Effects?
NIOSH is currently conducting research to understand the exposures and health effects of firefighters suppressing wildland and WUI fires. NIOSH researchers and collaborators at the US Forest Service and Department of the Interior have finished the second year of a multi-year study investigating exposures and health effects among six federal 20-person firefighting crews. The primary goal of this study is to measure exposures in the wildland fire environment and examine associations between those exposures and changes in lung, cardiac, kidney, and hearing function during each fire season and the off season over multiple fire seasons. This study has been paused in 2020 due to COVID-19 but is expected to resume.
To understand exposures and health effects faced by WUI firefighters, NIOSH is working with researchers from the University of Arizona and University of Miami to expand an existing collaborative research study (the Fire Fighter Cancer Cohort Study) to collect data regarding exposures from WUI fire incidents during the 2019 and 2020 fire seasons. Characterizing the types of chemicals, as well as the routes and levels of exposures, will help us understand health risks for wildland firefighters.
NIOSH is also in the process of developing a study assessing self-reported exposures to wildfire smoke and COVID-19 health outcomes among wildland firefighters. Additional information about this research will be available soon on the NIOSH Fighting Wildfires Page.
Authors of this article:
LCDR Corey Butler,MS REHS, is a Lieutenant Commander with the United States Public Health Service and an Occupational Safety and Health Specialist in the NIOSH Western States Division.
CAPT Christa Hale,DVM, MPH, DACVPM (Epi), is a Captain with the United States Public Health Service and Senior Epidemiologist and Veterinarian in the NIOSH Western States Division.
Kathleen Navarro, PhD, MPH is an Associate Service Fellow with the Division of Field Studies and Engineering.
Elizabeth Dalsey, M.A., is a Health Communication Specialist in the Western States Division.
CAPT Chucri (Chuck) A. Kardous, MS, PE, is a Captain with the United States Public Health Service and a research engineer with the NIOSH Division of Field Studies and Engineering.
Pamela S. Graydon, MS, COHC, is an Electronics Engineer working in hearing loss prevention in the NIOSH Division of Field Studies and Engineering.
CAPT David C. Byrne, Ph.D., CCC-A,is a Captain with the United States Public Health Service and a research audiologist with the NIOSH Division of Field Studies and Engineering.
[i] Adetona O, Reinhard T, Domitrovich J, Boryles G, Adetona A, Kleinman M, Ottma R, Naher L . Review of the health effects of wildland fire smoke on wildland firefighters and the public. lnhal Toxicol 28(3): 95-139. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26915822/
[v] West MR, Costello S, Sol JA, Domitrovich JW . Risk for heat-related illness among wildland firefighters: job tasks and core body temperature change. Occup Environ Med77(7):433-438. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31996475/
[vi] NIOSH . Report of a NIOSH health hazard evaluation, HHE 2011–0035. By Eisenberg J and McFadden J. Cincinnati, OH: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Unpublished.
At least 219 U.S. Forest Service personnel involved in firefighting have tested positive for COVID-19 so far this year, according to Stanton Florea, a Fire Communications Specialist for the agency.
Since early March, 141 employees of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have tested positive, said Alisha Herring, Education, Outreach, and Engagement Officer for the agency on November 5.
Jim Gersbach, Public Information Officer for the Oregon Department of Forestry, told Wildfire Today that “among all wildland firefighters in Oregon this summer – not just ODF personnel — seven tested positive.”
Wildfire Today has also learned from other sources that more than half a dozen members on one of the teams managing wildland fires have also tested positive in recent weeks. In the interests of privacy we will not identify the team.
Two months ago the Forest Service reported 122 positive tests. The Bureau of Land Management had 45 which at the time included one person in critical condition and one fatality from the virus.
No deaths were reported among fire personnel in the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Department of Forestry, or CAL FIRE.
As this was written at 4:17 p.m. MST November 5, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management had not provided updated numbers of their fire personnel that have tested positive.
For the most part wildland firefighters have adapted to the reality of working with the continuing threat of COVID-19. Here are examples of mitigation measures taken by wildland fire organizations:
Physical distancing and wearing face coverings.
Only one person from a unit or module attend physical briefings; or,
Briefings by radio, rather than in large groups.
Distributed Camps and multiple staging areas, having a much smaller number of people than traditional Camps or Incident Command Posts. This puts an added burden on the Logistics section, but is safer for all.
Some crews have become virtually self-sufficient for days at a time, carrying enough equipment and supplies to prepare their own meals.
“Module as One”, means a crew is treated as a family, not individuals. When together and away from others, they would not have to physically distance or wear masks.
Crew Time Reports (CTR) showing the hours worked each day can be submitted and approved electronically.
Demobilization documents can also be emailed and signed remotely.
Email incoming resources a short in-brief with PDF maps, digital CTRs, digital time sheets.
Use QR codes to provide access to maps and Incident Action Plans.
Use a Unit Log to record all close human contacts outside of the Module As One, in order to facilitate contact tracing if someone tests positive.
Establish trigger points around COVID-19 for PPE, sanitation, and holding capacity. Don’t order more resources than you can sustain.
When feasible, Air Tankers work from a home base and return to that location at the end of each day. Before this year, especially when there have been less than 24 large air tankers on contract, they would often be repositioned for days at a time, frequently staying overnight in different cities.
Fire officials are discovering that some of the measures above might continue to be used after the pandemic since they can enhance efficiency and productivity.
One high-ranking fire official who spent much of the summer on fires told us that some incident management teams (IMT) are applying the mitigation measures to a greater extent than others. The Alaska IMT for example, is very careful and requires that incoming personnel from the Lower 48 states be tested before they travel and after they arrive in Alaska. Some teams are adamant about wearing face coverings while others are not.
There are anecdotal reports that the mitigation measures taken this year have reduced the occurrence of diseases that are sometimes common at large fires, such as respiratory and digestive disorders.
The video below, posted by the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, shows an AeroClave, an automated no-touch decontamination unit. In addition to treating a meeting room it can be used to decontaminate engines, helicopters, and ambulances.
In August 600 US Forest Service firefighter positions were unfilled
The way the federal government manages wildland firefighters made a small step recently toward gaining enough attention that their issues might be acted upon somewhere down the road. In addition to the legislation that has been introduced this year to establish a wildland firefighter job series and pay them a living wage, two senators wrote a letter to the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior asking for those issues to be addressed, and also to waive the annual salary cap restrictions for fire personnel and convert seasonal firefighters to permanent.
The letter pointed out that in August 600 US Forest Service firefighter positions were unfilled. In a record-setting year for fires in California and Colorado, having about six percent of the jobs vacant is a problem. Is is also an indication that retention is an issue that needs to be addressed.
The letter was written by the two senators from California, Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris. Talking about improving the firefighter program does not accomplish anything, alone. Writing a letter to the Secretaries is a slightly stronger step, as is introducing legislation. PASSING meaningful legislation to make these improvements is what needs to be done, if the executive branch of government can’t or won’t do it on their own.
Below is the full text of the letter written by the senators:
October 19, 2020
The Honorable Sonny Perdue The Honorable David Bernhardt
Secretary of Agriculture Secretary of the Interior
1400 Independence Avenue, SW 1849 C Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20250 Washington, D.C. 20240
Dear Secretary Perdue and Secretary Bernhardt:
As California and the West contend with yet another historic and destructive wildfire season, it has become clear that we are entering a “new normal” in which increasingly intense wildfires wreak havoc during a nearly year-round fire season. So far this year, California has had over 8,600 wildfires, which have burned a record-setting 4.1 million acres, killed 31 people, and destroyed more than 9,200 homes and structures. Given the increasing demands placed on firefighters and the fact that the federal government owns 57% of the forest land in California, federal firefighting agencies must adapt to ensure that firefighters have the resources they need. To that end, we write with three requests:
1. In conjunction with the Office of Personnel Management, please review and consider increasing the General Schedule (GS) pay scale for all wildland firefighters employed by the Departments of Agriculture and Interior. As a part of this effort, we urge you to consider creating a new, separate job series and GS pay scale for federal wildland firefighters to ensure their pay is commensurate with other firefighting agencies and reflects their training requirements and the hazardous conditions they must endure.
The Pacific Southwest Region of the Forest Service has informed us that “hiring and retention is becoming increasingly difficult due to the high cost of living, increasing minimum wage and the significant discrepancy in salary compensation compared to other wildland fire organizations in [California].” For example, the annual base salary for an entry-level Cal Fire firefighter is $58,000; whereas the base salary for an entry-level Forest Service firefighter stationed in the San Francisco Bay Area is just $33,912. The Pacific Southwest Region has further informed us that as a direct result of low, non-competitive pay, nearly 600 Forest Service firefighter positions (seasonal and permanent) were unfilled as of August—a time when California’s fire activity increased substantially. Federal firefighters are specialized workers who face great risk to protect our families, homes, businesses and natural resources. Their salaries must reflect that, and we simply cannot afford to have so many firefighter positions unfilled.
2. Please examine and consider waiving the annual salary cap restrictions for fire personnel who exceed the GS pay ceiling while working overtime on wildfire emergencies. If Congressional action is necessary to waive these restrictions, please indicate so.
It is our understanding that some federal firefighters are working so many extra hours that they will soon reach the annual pay cap for GS employees and become ineligible for overtime compensation. Being asked to work for no pay places an unfair expectation on federal firefighters. It also serves as a dangerous disincentive for personnel to respond to fires, especially later in the season when conditions are often most dangerous in California. Given that states face different peaks in their fire seasons, we must ensure that federal firefighters remain available later in the year when California’s wildfires are often at their worst.
3. Please consider reclassifying seasonal federal firefighter positions as permanent, and let us know what additional resources or authorities you might need from Congress to do so.
It has become increasingly clear that wildfires in the West are no longer a seasonal phenomenon and that we can, therefore, no longer afford to have a seasonal firefighting workforce. Transitioning to a larger, full-time workforce would add immediate capacity to fight wildfires nationwide, allow for greater flexibility in shifting personnel between regions depending on wildfire activity, provide more stable work opportunities and employee benefits, increase employee retention, and reduce agency costs and burdens associated with the seasonal hiring process.
Some of California’s largest active wildfires—including the biggest in State history, which has now exceeded 1 million acres—are burning on federal land. While we are grateful that Cal Fire, local agencies, and other states and countries have sent crews to help fight wildfires on federal lands, the federal government must address the long-term issues with our federal firefighting workforce. Making salaries competitive enough to fill positions and retain personnel, addressing overtime caps, and transitioning seasonal roles to permanent posts are critical first steps. We urge you to address them as soon as possible, and we stand ready to help.
Josh Baker just got home from a 50-day deployment to three California wildfires. Although his job wasn’t dangerous — he worked on a support team, making calls to track down equipment such as port-a-potties and bulldozers — the hours were long, the stakes were high and the work was exhausting.
He’s still feeling tense. “I’m anxious, nerves are kind of frayed, things that would normally not be a big deal — kind of water off a duck’s back — hit a little harder,” said Baker, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) fire captain who spoke to Stateline as a member of the agency’s union, Local 2881.
Being a wildland firefighter has always involved long hours, personal risk and weeks away from home. But this year has been something else: More than 4 million acres burned in California alone. Entire towns were torched in Washington and Oregon. Smoke was so thick the sky turned orange over West Coast cities.
Now state and federal officials and mental health experts are bracing for firefighters to come home and start processing what they’ve been through. It’s not uncommon for wildland firefighters, even in a less-intense year, to develop depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, unhealthy substance use or suicidal thoughts.
“When you almost die on a wildfire, away from your family and kids — that doesn’t go away,” said a U.S. Forest Service smokejumper who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from his employer. “I know people who wake up in the middle of the night, and in their dreams they’re getting burned over by a fire, because they almost did.”
This year feels like a breaking point for many firefighters, said Mike West, who resigned as a fire dispatcher for the U.S. Forest Service this summer after 17 years working various fire-related jobs for the agency. His resignation letter, which detailed his struggles with post-traumatic stress, has been widely shared online.
“People are burned out,” West said. “They’re incredibly tired. And I think it’s been building for several years, and this is the year people are finally being more open [about mental health].”
State and federal agencies are trying to connect employees with counselors, chaplains and tools for managing trauma. But union officials and mental health experts say state and federal lawmakers must also fund more firefighter jobs and improve pay and mental health benefits, with severe fire seasons set to increase because of climate change.
“We can’t even get relief for our guys on these major fires,” said Tim Edwards, president of Local 2881. He wants the California legislature to hire hundreds more full-time firefighters to give people like Baker more time off to decompress. But state budgets are tight because of the pandemic and face many competing priorities.
The Forest Service smokejumper has started an online petition asking Congress to pay for a psychologist at every National Forest headquarters, mental health paid leave, better salaries for entry-level firefighters and better benefits for temporary employees. Federal firefighter salaries start at about $26,000 a year, not including hazard pay.
“The whole thing, to me, is mental health,” he said of his proposals. “To me [hiring] the psychologist is treating the problem. It’s not preventing it.”
The petition has collected more than 30,000 signatures in two months.
Some firefighters are heading home with memories of crew members who died in a fire. Others have lost their homes to wildfire or are returning to damaged communities. And like everyone else, they’re contending with the coronavirus pandemic.
Baker had been home with his wife and young daughter for less than an hour when he learned that a firefighter he’d worked with had COVID-19. Baker cloistered himself in a spare room for a few days until his own test results came back negative.
Some forestry experts say the pressure on firefighters will subside only when policymakers and the public invest more money in reducing wildfire risk, such as by clearing brush from around homes. Western states such as California have been ramping up investment in such projects.
“Ultimately, that’s what’s going to make it safer for fighters, is a healthy, restored, resilient ecosystem,” said Tim Ingalsbee, a wildland fire ecologist and executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, a Eugene, Oregon-based nonprofit.
An Increasingly Stressful Job
Tens of thousands of Americans are involved in fighting wildfires, from full-time federal and state employees to seasonal hires, private contractors, prison inmate crews and local fire department volunteers. Cal Fire alone employs 6,100 full-time fire professionals and 2,600 seasonal firefighters.
Unlike their city counterparts, wildland firefighters typically deploy for weeks or months, working long hours and usually sleeping in tents or catching quick naps in the dirt. When employees go home at the end of a fire season, it can be tough to readjust to normal life.
“That’s when the post-traumatic stress takes its toll on the wildland guys, the off-season,” said Burk Minor, director of the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, a Boise, Idaho-based group that raises money to help injured firefighters and the families of firefighters who died on the job.
West said that for years, he suppressed feelings about two close calls escaping wildfires in his early 20s. Going home became a struggle, particularly after his kids were born. “I was really hyper-vigilant, you know,” he said. He startled easily and would grow impatient and irritable when, for instance, a line at a restaurant buffet moved slowly.
The job has become more dangerous in recent years, largely because of climate change. Dry conditions and high winds in California are fueling fire behavior that firefighters have never seen before, Baker said.
“I hate to say it, because it sounds cliché, but every time we have these large-scale fires we say, ‘This is a career fire,’ or, ‘You’ll never see this again in your career,’” he said. “And every year, you’re topping that.”
In a farewell letter posted online this spring, Aaron Humphrey, a California hotshot crew supervisor (hotshots are on the front lines of fighting fire) explained that the 2018 Carr Fire — a blaze so intense it spawned a terrifying tornado — was his breaking point, reached after years of suppressing the strain of managing a fire crew.
“The day the fire tornado came and everyone did the best they could I lost the mental fight. … I felt dead inside that night,” he wrote. He spiraled into angry outbursts, heavy drinking and depression.
And as fires grow and more people move to forested areas, firefighters are both facing more pressure to protect communities and witnessing more human suffering.
“Now if you even lose one acre, that could be several people’s homes,” said Nelda St. Clair, a retired U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administrator who now manages crisis stress management training for wildland firefighters for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“The suicide rate in wildland fire is much higher than it is in municipal fire departments, or the general population,” said St. Clair, who keeps an informal tally of wildland firefighter suicides.
She said many wildland firefighters who die by suicide have experienced a traumatic event on the job, which can later fuel stress disorders, relationship problems and unhealthy substance use.
West said that after a close friend of his died on the fire line in 2013, the negative thoughts and emotions he’d been battling for years intensified. By 2017, he said, “I was having nightmares, I was having anxiety memory loss.” He had suicidal thoughts, too.
A Changing Culture
State and federal agencies have for decades conducted mental health training for wildland firefighters after catastrophic events, such as the death of a fire crew member. More recently, agency leaders have ramped up efforts to prepare firefighters for stressful and traumatic experiences and to encourage them to reach out for help.
“What we’ve been very successful at is changing the culture,” said Ted Mason, fire and aviation national safety program manager for the BLM. He said the profession is shifting away from the traditional, suck-it-up stoicism of first responders.
Cal Fire now has about 20 staff members who work full time with struggling employees and recommend counseling services and other resources, said Mike Ming, staff chief of Cal Fire’s behavioral health and wellness program. The agency also has trained staff all over the state to serve as peer support personnel who can offer colleagues a friendly ear.
Ming’s team sometimes sets up trailers at fire base camps that firefighters can duck into for a confidential discussion with a trained peer. Sometimes, he said, firefighters will walk into a trailer and just start crying.
The agency also is training firefighters to recognize the signs of stress and trauma and combat them with techniques such as deep breathing, Ming said. “Over time, if they don’t have the positive coping tools and skills … oftentimes people find themselves on their knees reaching out for help.”
But more needs to be done, St. Clair said. Although the culture of wildland firefighting is changing, “we’re not there yet.”
It’s difficult for anyone to reach out and ask for help, she said. “It’s more difficult for a wildland firefighter. They’re terrified that if anybody knows about it they’ll lose their jobs. They’re terrified that the people they depend on won’t trust them.”
And some employees still slip through the cracks. State and federal jobs generally offer an employee assistance program that includes access to a handful of free counseling sessions, for instance. But temporary workers lose access to that benefit when they’re laid off at the end of fire season.
People experiencing post-traumatic stress can need more specific help than general counseling. After initially being referred to a local marriage counselor by the Forest Service’s employee assistance program, West, who lives in a rural area that has few mental health providers, decided instead to drive 90 miles to see a trauma specialist.
“The guy was very nice,” West said of the marriage counselor. “But he didn’t really understand firefighting or what I was dealing with.”
It can also be difficult for firefighters to claim workers compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly at the federal level.
California lawmakers last year approved legislation that will make it easier for certain state and local firefighters and law enforcement officers to make such claims from 2020 to 2025. As of last March, Florida and Minnesota had similar laws on the books, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a Denver and Washington, D.C.-based group that advises state lawmakers.
This fire season has been so bad that agency officials and union leaders are calling for more mental health support for wildland firefighters and other public lands employees.
The Oregon State Department of Forestry has hired an outside contractor to connect employees with mental health professionals and chaplains. “These fires hit home for a lot of our employees,” said Patricia Kershaw, human resources manager for the agency. “It’s communities where they live, some lost their homes, some had families that lost their homes.”
U.S. Forest Service management and union leaders are discussing how to better support workers in Western states, said Randy Meyer, safety committee chair for the Forest Service Council of the National Federation of Federal Employees.
“There’s been a lot of talk about trying to delve into critical stress management,” Meyer said, “and possible or even probable PTSD issues with firefighters in particular, but our Forest Service employees in general.” Some employees have watched decades of work on public lands go up in smoke, he said.
Meyer said there’s also talk of expanding the agency’s employee assistance program to temporary workers after they’ve been laid off. But that might require an act of Congress.
“It’s not just a fiscal issue,” Meyer said. “We can’t spend money on people that aren’t employed by the agency.”
Baker agreed with Edwards, the Local 2881 president, that while it’s vital for firefighters to have mental health support they also need more time to go home and unwind between deployments.
“While having those resources is great,” he said, “it’s putting a Band-Aid on a bigger issue, which is the amount of personnel.”
The recession caused by the pandemic has squeezed state budgets and made new investments difficult, however. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, in January proposed spending $120 million this year and $150 million in future years to hire 677 more full-time Cal Fire firefighters and staff.
The legislature instead approved — and the governor in June enacted — $85.6 million to hire 172 new full-time firefighters and staff, as well as seasonal workers. Newsom later used emergency funds to hire over 850 more seasonal firefighters.
The Forest Service smokejumper said anecdotally he’s hearing wildland firefighter jobs are getting harder to fill, perhaps because of the low pay, tough schedule and risk. “There are less and less people who want to do that,” he said.
West is now working as an eighth-grade teacher, fulfilling a longtime dream and spending more time with his wife and two young kids. He said he no longer feels ashamed or embarrassed by his mental health struggles. “Hearing other people talk about it helped me talk about it,” he said.
This article first appeared in Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.