Wildland firefighters are burning out
“When the fire goes out, it's not all over.”
On July 21, 2009, a group of wildland firefighters practiced rappelling training near the Backbone Fire in Northern California. As smoke from the 6,000-acre fire billowed through Klamath National Forest, a 23-year-old firefighter was hundreds of feet above the inferno in a Bell 212 helicopter. His friend and colleague prepared to rappel off the helicopter’s side.
The following story includes graphic descriptions of injury.
What should have been a routine training exercise turned fatal. Before he could rappel, the 20-year-old, Tom Marovich, a second-year apprentice in the United States Forest Service, fell 200 feet to the ground. His harness had failed.
“I was in the helicopter and I watched that happen. I watched Tom fall to his death out of the helicopter and then had to sit in the helicopter until we landed,” says Ben*, who asked to use an alias for this story over concerns about agency reprisal.
“I've got images burned into my mind that I will never get away from,” he tells Inverse.
Tom’s accident and other deaths on the fire line don’t happen every day. Each year, an average of 17 wildland firefighters die in the line of duty, according to data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. As wildfires grow larger and burn longer, firefighters are under more pressure to manage accidents on the fire line and suicides off it. Burnout, substance abuse, depression, and suicide are rising in the sector.
"When you're watching your friends die or suffer to that extent, that's gonna take a toll,” Ben says.
“It doesn't matter who you are or what you're doing -- that has an impact on you. And if you don't have the support system to deal with it and an outlet to figure that out, I think it will crush you.”
Some firefighters are motivated by a sense of duty; others by the camaraderie and the chance to be active in nature. They love the job, but it’s getting harder to do.
“It shakes me to the core. You can't fall asleep and your head is spinning. You’re like, ‘What am I doing? And for what?'” Ben tells Inverse. “I don't want to leave a kid without a father. I don't want to leave a wife without a husband. It has a significant impact on my mind.”
The average global temperature has risen 1.4 degrees since 1880, with dramatic jumps since 1975. As the planet heats up and wildfires become more intense, more resources will be needed to address the psychological effects that linger long after the flames die down.
“When the fire goes out, it's not all over,” Mark Hartwig, Santa Barbara County fire chief and California’s 2017 fire chief of the year, tells Inverse.
Wildfire recovery often revolves around repairing financial and community damage, Hartwig says, but part of emergency management is a personal recovery.
“And sometimes that recovery just never fully takes place.”
When the call comes through the radio, it’s go time. Firefighters scramble with their gear and figure out the best way to get there. You can’t exactly put it in Google Maps, Ben tells me.
Suppressing a wildfire requires attacking it on all fronts. Smokejumpers, engine and hand crews, helitack crews, and hotshots arrive by land and air. They observe environmental cues and predict how a fire will devour the landscape.
Firefighting is taxing, mentally and physically. It involves clearing brush and digging trenches into the steaming earth. It's also pulling a child out of a burning car. It’s work that keeps an estimated 10,000 wildland firefighters away from home for weeks at a time, up to six months per year.
“The fire seasons are long and they're hard and they're destructive, and that mental toll is without a doubt there,” Eric Rice, career wildland firefighter and current district fire management officer of the Tahoe National Forest, tells Inverse.
“But you're going to be hard-pressed to find someone who is going to say, ‘Nah, I'm good. I don't want to go to that fire.’ They want to go.”
Charles Palmer, a 20-year retired wildland firefighter and professor at the University of Montana, tells me the work is unpredictable and adrenaline-inducing.
“I absolutely loved going to work and the mystery of, ‘What is today going to bring?’ Palmer says.
It makes the job feel less like punching a time clock and more like an adventure, says Ben. Some people thrive living on the edge of the unknown, while others struggle.
“The uncertainty is something that takes an immediate toll. You're sitting around waiting for somebody else to suffer in some way.” says Hartwig, the Santa Barbara fire chief.
“And you find yourself always wondering, ‘Is that next call going to be the proverbial cat in the tree? Or is it going to be the family of five who was in a head-on collision on 138 and you see three generations die in front of you in one fell swoop?”
For other wildland firefighters, like Ben, the losses are personal.
“In my job, I see a lot of people's livelihoods, homes, pets, memories, and dreams burnt up. But I don't see dead people as often. When I go to the actual loss of human life -- for me, it's my friends, it's my brothers. It's less frequency, higher severity.”
During fire season, crews eat, sleep, and work together for days at a time. Over the past 10 years, there has been an average of 67,000 wildfires each year across the United States, mostly across the West.
Nancy Bohl-Penrod, a therapist who’s worked with thousands of wildland firefighters, tells Inverse that firefighters are on calls longer than most other first responders, with less time to recuperate.
The distance from family and the intensity of the job brings fire crews together, making accidents all the more traumatic.
“You think, ‘Man, if I was in an office, I would not have coworkers dying. This is not normal,’” Ben says. “It's like, ‘So what am I doing? Why am I here?’"
In the 15 years Ben has been fighting wildfires, he’s seen dozens of colleagues get hurt on the job, despite near-constant safety training. One friend became paralyzed after being hit by a falling tree. Another committed suicide during the off-season. And one died in a helicopter crash, in a separate accident from Tom’s death.
Every time an incident happens, the questions weigh on him, but there aren’t any easy answers. During fire season, the schedule keeps these thoughts at bay.
“In order to fulfill the mission and keep going, they cannot focus on the things that are ugly or unpleasant, like picking up a child who has been in a mud flow or finding a burned body,” Bohl-Penrod, the first responder therapist, explains.
To stay focused in demanding moments, they have to push their feelings down. But then, once there’s a lull or fire season ends, firefighters come home. In the quiet, away from their crew, these thoughts come rolling in.
The off-season is a pivotal time for mental health; firefighters can struggle without the support of their colleagues and the financial support from the job. The delayed emotional reaction poses a challenge for fire departments, especially when the firefighter doesn’t realize they need help, Bohl-Penrod says.
Many fire organizations, especially volunteer departments, don’t have the resources for psychological support. Often, fire leadership maintains a culture of denial, not wanting to admit there’s a mental health crisis, multiple sources from five different agencies tell Inverse.
"Everybody I work for — their protocol is to deny it."
“Everybody I work for — their protocol is to deny it,” Hartwig says. “You deny an ankle injury that somebody has getting off the fire engine where you actually saw it happen. You deny it because the government doesn't exist from my perspective to say, ‘Oh, we own that. We're liable. We're going to pay you whatever you need.’”
It always comes back to what I could have done differently, Hartwig explains. There’s one call that’s haunted him for years.
A few years back, a father lit his 6-year-old child on fire, Hartwig recalls. When he got to the scene, the child had been pulled from a burning car and had third-degree burns all over his body. His eyelids were burned off, Hartwig recalls.
Hartwig gently asked for the boy’s name and if anything hurt. The child replied with his name and said only the tops of his feet. Remnants of his socks survived the blaze, the only place where his nerve endings hadn’t been burned off, Hartwig explains.
Hartwig looked down at the child and said, “We're going to help you. We're going to get everything we can for you.”
“Can you hold me?” the boy asked.
Hartwig knew if the boy had any chance of living, he needed to be wrapped in a sterile blanket. So Hartwig decided not to pick him up. Hartwig and the other first responders treated him and rushed him to the nearest hospital, but two weeks later, the child died.
“All I can think of as I think back is: He is literally passing on to the next life and he just wanted somebody to hold him and say it was ok.”
Hartwig says he has about 10 images he can never stop thinking about; images that involve the helpless or very young. The expectation is to keep those traumatic memories to yourself and move on.
"The culture is: 'Be able to do your shit and be ready.'"
“The culture is: 'Be able to do your shit and be ready,'” Palmer, the retired wildland firefighter, explains. “When you start running into some of these costs or challenges, independence is so heavily stressed that it becomes, ‘Well, I better not let anybody know about this. I better take care of this myself or I better keep my mouth shut and my head down.'”
Jeff Dill, a retired fire captain and the founder of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, tells Inverse the idealized firefighter is invincible.
"Every time you're picking up that pickaxe to go out and fight that wildfire, you're expected to act in a certain manner: brave, strong, courageous, give help, don't ask for help. I handle all things on my own because I don't want people to judge me. I don't want them to think I'm weak."
Admitting hardship with these unrealistic expectations, even firefighter to firefighter, can be difficult.
“As much as that brotherhood allows so much relief and comfort, they’re not the ones you're going to hug and cry with,” Hartwig says. “You find yourself crying alone or finding a spot by yourself and just trying to process those emotions away from somebody who might see that as a weakness.”
Firefighting is hard on the body and can cause joint issues, wear-and-tear on muscles, breathing problems, and even cancer. But what’s less understood is how the job impacts the mind -- how firefighters deal with losing colleagues, experiencing traumatic events, or watching the natural environment degrade.
“You've got the initial loss, and then you've got all this peripheral, slow-wave loss that just grinds on people until they're not necessarily who they were,” Ben says.
People often leave the fire service in a much different mental state than when they started, Hartwig explains.
“I take the very best hours of the very best years of the men and women that come to work for me,” Hartwig says. “And so often, I give them back to their families in a condition where they're not able to enjoy the fruits of their labor or the pension or retirement that they have worked so hard for.”
Hartwig has heavily invested in mental health resources for his crew but wonders if it’s enough.
“I feel my role as a fire chief is to inspire them to be their very best every day, give them the tools that they need, and invest in them both physically and mentally so that when they're done with their tour, I can have a conversation and smile as I turn them back to their families and say, ‘Enjoy the rest of your life with your family and your loved ones.’"
"In most cases, that’s not how it goes.”
To cope with the stress, some firefighters exercise, meditate, confide in friends, or seek counseling. Others self-medicate.
Many firefighters who lack support turn to alcohol, Ben explains. The drinking can spiral into other psychological problems, like depression and suicide, which is happening at “astronomical rates.”
“Often, I don't think people cope,” Ben says. “Either it consumes them and they manage to keep it together enough to keep existing or they decide to cease existing.”
Over the past 20 years, Bohl-Penrod has seen sharp increases in the number of wildland firefighters thinking about, attempting, or committing suicide. A 2018 study found 55 percent of wildland firefighters reported clinically significant suicidal symptoms, compared to 32 percent of non-wildland firefighters. A white paper found that firefighters (urban and wildland) are more likely to die from suicide than in the line of duty.
Statistics on the number of completed suicides in the wildland fire community range from about 25 to 30 suicides per year to 52 occurring between 2015 and 2016. These numbers likely underestimate the true incidence because federal agencies only document deaths on the job and families often keep the cause of death private.
Jeff Dill has been working with firefighters and tracking first responder mental health for decades. He has counted and confirmed 23 suicides in the wildland fire community in the past two years. That's about 16 times higher than the national suicide rate in the United States.
“There's the very intentional suicide, and then there are the people who just engage in such poor behaviors that they're killing themselves over time,” Hartwig says.
Exposure to traumatic events, like losing a crew member on the line or watching a child die, can also lead to high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD rates in firefighters (both urban and wildland) range from 6.5 to 30 percent. In contrast, about 11 to 30 percent of military veterans are estimated to have PTSD in a given year.
How this psychological toll affects work performance is poorly understood.
Deborah Beidel, a clinical psychologist and researcher studying post-traumatic stress in first responders and military veterans, says that unaddressed mental turmoil can manifest into errors on the job.
“Mistakes and horrific accidents happen when people are too tired or distracted,” Beidel says.
Stepping away to address painful thoughts that might be driving behaviors like drinking too much alcohol, getting involved in fights, or having brushes with the law is critical, she continues. Going to see a counselor, confiding in a mentor or colleague, or participating in a treatment program are all ways of accessing help.
“As much as we need them out there taking care of us, it's important that they take care of themselves.”
Supporting mental health in the fire service is … tricky.
“You don't pull them off the fire line and say, ‘Ok, everybody, let's sit in a circle and talk about it' because they are still mission bound,” Bohl-Penrod, the wildland firefighter therapist, explains. And when they are mission bound, she says, you don’t want to crack their armor. After the mission is over, then it’s time to talk.
After a critical incident, agencies often bring in a critical incident stress management team (CISM). A critical incident is an event that has the potential to overwhelm a person’s coping mechanisms -- like handling dead bodies. The CISM team provides counseling, helps firefighters process the event, and determines what other resources may be needed.
“The bottom line is we are built to talk, share, and get it out,” Bohl-Penrod, who leads the Southern California CISM team, says. “Firefighters have to find a safe harbor somewhere to share what's going on so it doesn't get trapped inside.”
After CISM debriefings, some fire departments offer licensed therapists, while others offer helplines for firefighters, as well as their friends and family, and workshops to teach coping skills or identifying peers in crisis. Helping loved ones support the firefighter in their life is crucial, Dill explains.
"When we look at our data of the approximately 1,430 firefighters and EMS that have taken their lives, the number one known reason is marriage and family relationships," Dill says.
Firefighters must be able to access support without involving their fire departments, Bohl-Penrod stresses. Many firefighters fear losing professional opportunities or being suspended if they admit they are having a hard time. A 2017 study including over 2,000 first responders -- nurses, firefighters, police officers -- found that 50 percent of first responders think their supervisor will treat them differently if they seek help for their mental health.
"In the last 18 months, I've had seven firefighters call me up and say, 'Jeff, I went and got help. I was diagnosed with PTSD and I was fired,'" Dill tells me.
Despite the startling rates of post-traumatic stress and suicide, agency officials are often “skittish” about saying mental illness can be a byproduct of the job, Hartwig says.
“You're never going to get anybody from an official capacity to say, ‘Yep, it's a danger. There's a liability and we have it. Where do I write the check?”
Ironically, taxpayers who scoff at that reality are also relieved that government agencies don’t pay for everything, Hartwig says. But things are changing slowly.
“It used to be, 'Suck it up,' or 'That didn't bother you, right?' Or, 'If that bothers you, and you come tell me, then I'm probably gonna put you on admin leave and we're going to send you to a psychiatrist to see if you're 'normal,'” Hartwig says. “We've gone from that in my career to, ‘It's ok to not be ok.’”
Now, in Hartwig's and many other fire departments around the country, people share the healthy and unhealthy ways they stay mentally fit and have access to confidential mental health resources.
Over the next 20 years, 11 states across the country are predicted to see the average annual area burned increase by 500 percent. Whether fire agencies have the resources to meet this scorching future is uncertain. Firefighter shortages are popping up all over the nation, and retention is at an “unprecedented” low level, Ben says.
And the problem isn't distinctly American. Australian firefighting forces, many of which are volunteer organizations, are currently facing the most destructive fire season in recent history.
More firefighters will be needed to manage these monster fires, and agencies will have to keep them resilient.
Instead of being viewed as a personal defect or failure, mental stress should be treated as a job-related risk and monitored as regularly as physical fitness, leaders in the wildland fire community say.
“If you're a firefighter and you get hurt fighting a fire, that injury came about not because you were a weak person. It came about because you were doing your job, and this is the hazard of your job,” explains Beidel, the first responder psychologist.
“In the same way, if you go and see a site where a father shot his two little children and killed them, it's not a weakness for that to affect you. It's an occupational hazard.”
Reduced stigma and more resources could prevent wildland firefighters from reaching the brink — and keep them in the job many love.
Ultimately, without a healthy fire service, we could all go up in flames.
- Organizations like the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, and the Wildland Fire and Aviation Critical Incident Stress Management offer resources, guidance, and opportunities to donate.
- If you are a firefighter experiencing distressing or suicidal thoughts, the National Volunteer Fire Council supports volunteer firefighters, EMTs, and rescue personnel. Contact their suicide helpline at 1-888-731-FIRE. You can also reach out to SAFE CALL NOW 206-459-3020, a hotline staffed by public safety officers, retired public safety officers, and mental health professionals who are familiar with the culture of wildland firefighting.
- Non-firefighters can reach out to a number of other organizations that will support them. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Crisis Text Line offers free, 24/7 support to anyone, in any type of crisis; text 741741.