A brief look — wildland firefighter smoke exposure and risk of lung and cardiovascular disease

Wildland firefighters and smoke

Here is a very brief look at the effects of smoke on wildland firefighters, and below that, a longer look, in the embedded four-page .pdf document.

By Kathleen M. Navarro, U.S. Forest Service
(currently with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Wildland firefighters are exposed to health hazards including inhaling hazardous pollutants from the combustion of live and dead vegetation (smoke), and breathing in  ash and soil dust, while working long shifts with no respiratory protection. This research brief summarizes a study estimating long-term health impacts of smoke exposure for wildland firefighters (Navarro et al. 2019). The study estimated relative risk of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease mortality from existing particulate matter (PM) exposure-response relationships using a measured PM concentration from smoke and breathing rates from previous wildland firefighter studies across different exposure scenarios.

Key Findings:

  • Firefighters who worked both short and long seasons (49 days and 98 days per year, respectively) were exposed to increased lifetime doses of PM4 across all career durations (5-25 years).
  • Wildland firefighters were estimated to be at increased risk of lung cancer (8 to 43 percent) and cardiovascular disease (16 to 30 percent) mortality across all season lengths and career durations.
  • These findings suggest that wildland firefighters should reduce exposure to smoke in any way possible.
wildland Firefighter Smoke Exposure Health Risk2020


For more information: Smoke — and the health of firefighters

Let’s be careful out there.

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

Wildland firefighters and mental health

Grassroots Wildland Firefighters issues a statement during Mental Health Awareness Month

Smoke column from the Williams Fork Fire
Smoke column from the Williams Fork Fire in CO, Aug. 22, 2020. USFS photo.

Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, a new, very active, and increasingly relevant organization has released a statement about mental health:

Mental Health Awareness Month – Time to Shed Light on Federal Wildland Firefighters Most Urgent Challenge

Greater than the acres of treasured forest lands lost, more valuable than any one residential home or business, more challenging than the most complex of wildfire incidents is the challenge of addressing the mental health crisis currently facing the firefighting community. In the Fall of 2019, six current and former federal wildland firefighters came together to discuss and identify what they believed to be major issues plaguing wildland firefighters. Determined to create lasting reforms, they developed solutions critical to protecting and advancing the health and wellness of the men and women who dedicate their lives to such a critical public service.

Mental Health and Wellness is truly at the core of what drives the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters (GRWFF) mission, and they remain steadfast to serve, protect, and support our sisters and brothers; our family.

We’re all here today because we’ve experienced loss in one form or another. We have lost friends in the line of duty. We have lost friends to suicide. We have lost friends to cancer after a lifetime of firefighting. We have buried our friends and colleagues. We have had close calls on the line that shake us to our core. We have responded to medical incidents that involve one of our own. We re-live and revisit these traumatic events never to be forgotten no matter how hard we try to put them aside. We struggle to reconnect with our partners, our children, and our loved ones after being absent from their lives for months on end; missing birthdays, anniversaries and knowing cherished moments are lost. We have struggled with our own demons. We have felt alone.

The Grassroot Wildland Firefighters are here today because of our shared experiences and the invisible bonds we develop. You are not alone. We are listening, and we hear you.

The members of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters have had the honor and privilege to work in a multitude of positions within the wildland fire community. These experiences have provided our lives purpose, a sense of duty, and incredible opportunity. But it is the extraordinary people with whom we’ve shared these experiences and the lifelong connections we created that have had the largest and most lasting impacts on our lives. They are our brothers and our sisters; they are our family. But deep connections often come at a high cost. And so, when our fire family members are struggling or taken from us too soon, the impact and loss can be immense and often crippling.

The increase in public demand and expectations placed on Wildland Firefighters to respond to ever larger and more intense wildfires is far from abating, and, as a matter of fact, is expected to exponentially increase in the coming years. Our federal Wildland Firefighter workforce is currently experiencing a major decline in frontline fire experience, advanced leadership qualifications, and severe staffing shortages not seen in recent memory.

Coming out of a pandemic during one of the worst fire seasons in history puts us in a position of incredible stress and strain on our personal mental health and wellness. The physical fire environment is outpacing our ability to think and act creatively.  For our federal wildland fire workforce, we are outmatched and outpaced with the social and political demands that are expected of us. This places an untenable burden on the federal wildland firefighting response community. The GRWFF recognizes this burden impacts not only us, but the partners and families we leave behind.

We are reaching out to our fire family during Mental Health Awareness Month to reaffirm our commitment to the wildland fire community.  As we progress as an organization, so too does our commitment to the comprehensive Health and Wellbeing of our federal fire workforce.

As the GRWFF Comprehensive Health and Wellbeing subcommittee gathers data and research on the topic of mental health, we also continue to develop our resources page on the GRWFF website.  We are working with several other non-governmental organizations to provide data, research, stories, and resources to help raise awareness and propose much needed reforms.

We recognize these problems are complex, but we are committed to identifying the true source of these issues and developing and implementing real solutions through legislative efforts to further support our fire family.  We are all in this together.

A fire supervisor asks, “Why didn’t I see this coming?”

Fire personnel and mental health issues

Eclipse Complex firefighters
Firefighters on the Eclipse Complex of fires, Klamath NF, 2017. Photo by B. Patton. InciWeb.

From Bill: I have been communicating for a few weeks with a U.S. Forest Service Forestry Technician about an article they wanted to submit about helping employees who are struggling with mental health issues. The text arrived by email yesterday:

Sorry for the delay. I’ve actually been really busy at work, and then I had an employee resign for mental health reasons today.  For that reason I don’t want to put this off anymore.

Here is the article. The author wished to remain anonymous.

It has now been over a year since the start of the 2020 fire season.  It has also been just over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic truly began affecting my life, and the lives of the people I work with.  A year ago I was onboarding my crew in full COVID PPE, issuing gear and sending them home to telework while we figured out how to fight fire during a pandemic.  I was legitimately thrilled to start the 2021 season, thinking the pandemic and the stress was behind us and that finally we could get back to ‘normal’.

But today I had a talk with one of my employees about their incredibly difficult off-season and the mental health struggles they’ve been dealing with.  The details of their struggle aren’t critical here.  It could be about money, family, a relationship, personal health, or simply happiness and life satisfaction.  What is important is that since the end of the 2020 fire season, almost half of the employees I supervise have approached me with mental health concerns just like these.  Yes, you read that right.  Nearly half of my employees are struggling to cope to the extent that they approached me needing help and advice.  And while I was aware, as I’m sure you are, that the pandemic has caused trauma, stress, depression, and self harm at unprecedented levels potentially not seen before, it hadn’t personally affected me until now.  And now it’s here, and not in a small way.  This is not an anomaly. This is a trend.

At first I had a serious bout of self reflection and introspection.  “What have I done to these people that they’re hurting so badly?”  “What happened last season to push them in this direction?”  “Did I drive them too hard?”  “Why didn’t I see this coming?”  I consulted with some of my mentors and realized that no, it isn’t necessarily me.  It’s us.  It’s our culture.  We think we can handle just about anything.  We regularly and voluntarily place ourselves into environments that define the word stress, and we do so with big dirty grins on our faces.  And as the season grinds on we find a few ways to cope, and they’re usually extremely unhealthy.  It should not surprise us that this approach is bound to break down.  But one thing we don’t do is talk about how we’re feeling.  We grind it out because we know winter is coming.  And we think that will help.  But what if it doesn’t?  I’m writing today to say that it doesn’t.  Winter unemployment wasn’t a holiday.  Fire season was a holiday from reality.  And when work ends, the harsh reality of “real life” is waiting there staring you in the face.  And now we are returning to work not refreshed and fit and ready to go, but drained from a stressful winter.  And if this problem exists where I work, I truly believe it must be happening where you work, whether it’s being talked about or not.

So here’s my advice.  I’m not a mental health professional so take it for what it’s worth.  I’m just a guy who’s done this for a little while.

Firefighters – know that you are not alone.  Literally everyone experiences the same anxiety and struggles just like you do, in different ways and at different times.  The past 12 months have been brutal.  Everyone on my crew broke their career overtime records in 2020, and did so while it felt like the world was imploding around us, and while we were isolated from friends and family.  Stress on top of stress for 6-8 months followed by being set adrift and alone into the world once the snow flies is mentally taxing in a normal year.  Doing all of that during a pandemic was bound to push people over the edge.  I only ask that you realize that we are here for you.  Your supervisors.  Your coworkers.  Even the random people you meet for one shift on a fire and never see again.  We’re here for you because we are you.  We experience it too.  And while we may not have all the answers, we’re all better off seeking them together.  Speak up.  Your voice will empower the voices of others.  And there are free and anonymous resources to connect you with professionals regardless of which agency you work for. Talking about it will help.

Supervisors – Make yourself available and approachable.  I am as guilty as the rest of you.  In our line of work, I am a stereotypical fireline supervisor.  I am loud and outspoken, and I portray a confidence that I’m sure tells my subordinates that I am more or less bulletproof and immune from these issues personally.  That is not helpful.  That does not give your people the confidence to speak up.  Show humility.  Lose the ego.  Let them see your weaknesses.  Empower your employees with the knowledge they need to get help.  Give them contact information for the Employee Assistance Program (EAP).  While I am at times a major skeptic when it comes to believing “the agency” has our back, I can say for certain that my agency’s EAP has done incredible work for the people I’ve put in touch with it.  And even if no one has approached you for help, you can still foster an environment that encourages open communication and the ability to come to you with issues.  The egomaniacal “shut up and dig” approach may work in some cases, but this is not one of them.

Thanks for indulging me in my brief but passionate soapbox rant.  I don’t claim to have the answers.  I have no formal training in mental health or therapy.  But I’ve done this job for a long time, and I’m seeing looks on faces I’ve never seen before.  We’ve been getting better recently about talking.  Opening up.  Discussing as opposed to directing.  But I believe we still have work to do if we’re going to create a culture and a family that feels comfortable speaking up and opening up about mental health.  Life is stressful enough these days.  Doing what we do on top of all of that is bound to be just a little too much sometimes.  Drop the ego and be a human.  A little empathy goes a long way.  Have a safe season.


Note from Bill:

Suicide rates among wildland firefighters have been described as “astronomical.

Help is available for those feeling really depressed or suicidal.

Mass Bird Die-Off Linked to Wildfires and Toxic Gases

Using observations from crowdsourced science and weather location data, researchers concluded that wildfires caused a mass die-off of birds in the western and central United States in 2020.

By Joshua Rapp Learn

After an abnormally large number of migratory birds turned up dead in people’s backyards in Colorado and other parts of western and central U.S. states, locals began to document their observations on a crowdsourced science platform called iNaturalist. Within the app, a special project was set up specifically for this die-off, which occurred in August and September 2020, so that records of the dead birds could be compiled together.

Around the same period as the birds’ deaths, more than 3 million hectares (7.8 million acres) of land burned, which resulted in habitat loss and the emission of toxic compounds that threaten the health of both avian species and humans. In addition, snowstorms struck parts of the Northwest in early September while these birds were in the midst of their annual migration. Some areas experienced temperature drops of as much as 40°C (72°F) in just a few hours.

Mountain Bluebird, male
Mountain Bluebird, male. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Researchers heard of this die-off event and wanted to see whether there was a link between the birds’ deaths and the other major events (wildfires and snowstorms) occurring in the United States at the time. In a new study published in GeoHealth, Yang et al. used the iNaturalist data, which included recordings of a number of migratory species such as warblers, geese, hummingbirds, swallows, flycatchers, and sparrows. The scientists also studied map readings that showed where observations were taken on iNaturalist to compare the locations of the birds’ deaths with the locations of the wildfires and storms.

Their findings were starkly clear. “The wildfire and also the toxic air were the two factors that influenced the birds’ mortality,” said Anni Yang, a postdoctoral fellow in spatial ecology at Colorado State University and one of the study’s authors. There was a strong correlation between the observations of dead birds and wildfires and the toxic gases they produced, but not with the early winter storms.

“The birds are sensitive to the environment,” Yang said. The respiratory system of avian species in particular easily can be damaged by air pollution. Although wildfires have always occurred and birds have evolved to cope with them in some measure, the combination of climate change and decades of fire suppression in parts of the United States has led to fires that burn far hotter and larger than fires that burned in centuries past. The larger fires could cause problems that birds nowadays aren’t capable of dealing with.The researchers also discovered that there were some differences in local areas. In parts of California, for example, more bird deaths occurred farther from the wildfires. The reason could be secondary impacts of the fires affecting humidity levels, which could lead to the deaths of birds in hot, humid air over the ocean.The researchers also noticed other trends. Land cover had an impact on bird deaths; the data showed that more birds died in urban areas. According to the authors, the reason could be known issues that affect birds, such as building strikes. But Yang noted that this correlation may be slightly biased because of quarantining due to the pandemic. In other words, people were spending more time in urban areas and perhaps paying more attention to dead birds around their homes, which inadvertently may have boosted the numbers in cities compared with rural areas.Yang also suggested that the lack of correlation between bird deaths and the snowstorms could be explained by shortcomings in the crowdsourced science application. In that case, fewer people may have been going outside during the bad weather, which could translate to fewer observations of dead birds.

Yang said other local factors might have played roles in the deaths of some species. The researchers looked at all bird deaths equally, but different species could be affected in different ways by climate events like wildfire smoke or a snowstorm.

Rongting Xu, an ecosystem modeler at Oregon State University and another of the paper’s authors, said that it would be great to run the same study over multiple years, comparing the summer of 2020 with previous summers, for example, to see whether wildfires or early snowstorms in other years caused similar die-offs. Such long-term examinations could also reveal whether factors like climate change are playing a role in bird deaths, she said. (GeoHealthhttps://doi.org/10.1029/2021GH000395, 2021)

—Joshua Rapp Learn (@JoshuaLearn1), Science Writer

This article first appeared at EOS, Science News by AGU.
Citation: Learn, J. R. (2021), Mass bird die-off linked to wildfires and toxic gases, Eos, 102, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021EO156447. Published on 26 March 2021.


NPR: Firefighters are facing a growing mental health challenge

Interviews with several firefighters. One said, “Things we did 10 years ago are no longer working”

Smoke column from the Williams Fork Fire in Colorado
Smoke column from the Williams Fork Fire in Colorado Aug. 15, 2020. USFS photo.

National Public Radio has an interesting interview with several firefighters, and a researcher who studies issues that affect firefighters. Check it out — it’s only seven minutes.

And speaking of firefighters’ health, you need to read the story of one who has survived two fire shelter deployments. He describes some of the challenges he’s dealing with.