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.

Federal employee suicide rate in 2018 was five times higher than private industry

Suicide Helping hands
St.Jude Progress

Wildland firefighters are not alone in their high rate of suicide.

From Fedsmith.com January 8, 2019:

Suicides accounted for 28% of the 124 Federal employee job-related deaths in 2018.

In contrast, suicides accounted for only 5% of the 4,779 private industry employees who died on the job in 2018.

It is OK to ask someone if they are thinking about suicide. Some people think this will spur suicide attempts but this is not accurate. Encouraging them to talk could be the first step leading them to safety.


Help is available for those feeling really depressed or suicidal.

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

Who has your back?

Football players and Vets help each other — maybe the program can be adapted for firefighters

Merging vets and players
Merging Vets & Players photo.

With the suicide rate of wildland firefighters being described as “astronomical” according to information developed by Nelda St. Clair of the Bureau of Land Management in 2017, we need to be situationally aware of any proven or innovative programs that can help mitigate the issues that lead firefighters to think that’s the only option they have.

Today I learned about a program designed to merge former professional football players with veterans of the military. The goal is to give them a new team to tackle the transition together. Called Merging Vets & Players, or MVP, it shows them they are NOT alone.

Fox Sports analyst Jay Glazer and Nate Boyer, retired NFL player and former Green Beret, created MVP in 2015 to address this important challenge.

So far MVP is active in four cities where once a week the former football players and military veterans meet for one hour and 45 minutes in gyms.

Here is how it is described:

The program starts with a 30-minute workout with a warrior to their left and right to get that familiar “burn” going again in them.

The magic of the MVP begins right after with The Huddle, an hour and fifteen minutes of peer-on-peer support, a group of badasses building up fellow badasses. It reminds us of our strength, even when it doesn’t seem clear.

Merging Vets & Players
Merging Vets & Players photo.

The Huddle is where they share their challenges in transition and offer each other support and resources. MVP coaches our vets and athletes to be PROUD OF THEIR SCARS, and to use what they experienced on the battlefield or football field to EMPOWER them through the transition. We don’t run from mental health challenges, we tackle it as a team.

Too many combat vets and former professional athletes think they are alone, MVP is here to show you’re not alone. Whether it’s combat camouflage or a sports jersey, our MVP members help each other find a new identity, — find greatness again — after the uniform comes off.

Wildland firefighters have some things in common with vets and professional football players. Wildland firefighters are tactical athletes, they are members of a team, they depend on each other for success and safety, what they do can be extremely mentally and physically difficult, they are often away from their friends and families, and there are times of the year when they suddenly transition to a much different life style away from their “team”.

Maybe the MVP program could be modified, merging vets with current or transitioned firefighters. Or, it could be just firefighters.

Take a look at the two-minute video that Fox aired on Thanksgiving before the football games.

I’d love to see a group of firefighters doing the “WHO’S GOT MY BACK” call and response.

Learn more about MVP at their website and Instagram.


Help is available for those feeling really depressed or suicidal.

US Forest Service Fire Director interviewed about suicide among firefighters

Marc Mullenix
Marc Mullenix

In January 2008 a few days after Wildfire Today was created I first wrote about firefighter suicide when someone I had served with on an Incident Management Team, Marc Mullenix, took his life. Some of his past jobs included Fairmont Fire Protection District, Wildland Fire Division Chief for the Boulder Fire Department, and Fire Management Officer for Mesa Verde National Park, all in Colorado. In 2007 Marc was a Type 1 Incident Commander trainee on Kim Martin’s Incident Management Team in the Rocky Mountain Geographic Area. He was married to Shawna Legarza, a former Hotshot who is now the Director of Fire and Aviation for the U.S. Forest Service.

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

In an article published at REI.com this week, Jenni Gritters interviewed Director Legarza about firefighter suicide. The piece is titled, “Reports show wildland firefighters may struggle in secret once the season ends.”

The article shines a light on the issue and is very much worth reading, but below are excerpts:

Back in 2008, Lagarza says no one knew how to react to firefighter suicides. She wondered what to say to people, and what people would say to her. She wondered how she had missed the signs. She wondered if she should go back to work at all. Eventually, she returned to school to get her Ph.D. in psychology, to try to understand suicide better. Now she runs fire programs for the U.S. Forest Service, with a special emphasis on firefighter education.

[…]

There’s no denying that there is a problem when it comes to suicide: Wildland firefighters are dying by suicide at startling rates each year, far more often than people in the general population. This is a fact that has been known within the fire community for years, often whispered and mourned, but not spoken about directly until recently, Legarza says.

Part of the reason for the silence—and lack of information—around death by suicide comes from an issue with reporting. Jeff Dill, the founder of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FFBHA), says that many firefighters experience mental health struggles after they’ve gone fully off-duty for the season, which means their deaths often go unreported within agencies like the National Park Service (NPS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and U.S. Forest Service (USFS).

[…]

In 2018, a Florida State University professor and clinical psychologist who studies military suicides released a study that ruffled some feathers when it showed that wildland firefighters, in particular, were more likely to report clinically significant suicide symptoms than non-wildland firefighters. In the study, 55% of wildland firefighters reported experiencing thoughts about death by suicide, compared to 32% of non-wildland firefighters. Both of these percentages are staggering compared to NIH suicide data on the general population, which shows that 20% of people, on average, experience some suicidal thoughts.


Help is available for those feeling really depressed or suicidal.

Suicide Warning Signs
Suicide Warning Signs

Other articles on Wildfire Today about wildland firefighter suicide:

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

Prince Harry spoke about mental health to farmers, but it could have been firefighters

Prince Harry has opened up to farmers about his own mental health struggles. “Asking for help was one of the best decisions that I ever made.”

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. From ABC News video.

While on a trip to Australia Prince Harry and Meghan Markle stopped to talk with farmers who are suffering through a severe drought which has led to a cascading series of hardships. In drawing upon his own experience with depression he implored them to find someone to talk to.

His words would have been very appropriate before an audience of wildland firefighters — from January 1, 2015 through November 1, 2017 at least 68 took their own lives.

If you substitute “firefighter” for “farmer” in Prince Harry’s address, it would still be very appropriate.

Help is available for those feeling really depressed or suicidal.

Honor Guard personnel from wildland fire agencies represented at Family Fire Weekend

The annual event commemorates fallen wildland firefighters

Above: Honor Guard representatives at the Family Fire Weekend in Boise last month. USFWS photo.

At this year’s Family Fire Weekend organized by the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, representatives of honor guards from firefighting agencies participated in special ceremonies at the national Wildland Firefighters Monument. The event was held at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise May 19 and 20, 2018.

Honor Guards from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian affairs, and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection presented colors to open the event on Saturday. Three bagpipers – traditionally used to honor fallen firefighters and police offers – accompanied the group. Honor guard members then interacted informally with other participants. On Sunday, the interagency honor guard led a procession of families to the Wildland Firefighters Monument and laid flowers on individual markers commemorating deceased members of the wildland fire family.

“This was a good opportunity to honor the fallen, including our Service comrades commemorated at the monument,” said Chris Wilcox, Branch Chief, National Wildlife Refuge System Fire Management headquartered at NIFC.

honor guard fire family weekend boise firefighters
Members of the USFWS Honor Guard at the Wildland Firefighters Monument lay flowers on the commemorative marker for Richard S. Bolt, the first FWS employee to die in the line of duty while fighting a wildland fire. (left to right) Mike Koole, National Bison Range; Bruce Butler. USFWS photo.

In addition to firefighters who were killed in the line of duty, the monument has markers for some fire management employees who died of other causes — for example, Shane del Grosso, the USFWS Mountain-Prairie Region Fire Management Specialist based at Huron South Dakota who died by suicide in 2016.

The suicide rate among wildland firefighters has been described as “astronomical”, so it could be a stretch to assume a suicide is not, at least to a degree, a line of duty death.

Help: