Wildfire & the West

For wildland firefighters, another battle looms: for pay and mental health care to match their growing workload

“We have to provide a way for firefighters to enter and exit the career in a healthy manner,” says an advocate for improved working conditions.

“This job starts as an adventure.” A wildland firefighter working in the area of Yosemite National Park.  Photo: Kelly Martin

By Felicity Barringer | Photographs by Kelly Martin

Five years ago, Brian Hughes, a respected member of California’s wildland firefighters and a hotshot team leader, was crushed by a burning 105-foot Ponderosa pine as his crew worked to contain the Ferguson fire west of Yosemite National Park. The specialist who cut the tree, firefighters in the Arrowhead hotshot crew he led, and paramedics tried in vain to save him. 

“Brian was one of the best,” said Woody Smeck, the superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. “He was a pillar of strength for that hotshot crew.”

Tribute page for Brian Hughes on the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation website.

According to the Agriculture Department’s Wildfire Lessons Learned Center, 23 wildland firefighters died while on duty in 2021 from COVID-19, entrapment, a smokejumping mishap, plane crashes, and vehicle accidents. That doesn’t count the thousands of injuries to limbs and lungs.

But what about the firefighters who tried to save Hughes, or the close colleagues of the 33-year-old who fought the same fire? Psychological harm is harder to quantify. Supervisors of firefighting crews “exposed to either a horrific air tanker crash or the fatality of coworker on the fireline and having to haul their bodies out — you can’t undo that visual,” said Kelly Martin, who, a year after Hughes’ death, retired as chief of fire and aviation management at Yosemite. 

“They have to supervise young people,” she went on. “It becomes absolutely paralyzing to feel they can be an effective supervisor and make good decisions when they feel this is clouding their judgment and their ability to make sure people don’t get hurt or killed.”

The study’s subjects suffered two to 10 times more often from depression, anxiety disorder, PTSD, and recent thoughts of suicide; a full 57 percent reported binge drinking the previous month. 

A 2021 survey of 2,625 people with experience as wildland firefighters found such traumatic encounters had consequences. The study’s subjects suffered two to 10 times more often from depression, anxiety disorder, PTSD, and recent thoughts of suicide; a full 57 percent reported binge drinking the previous month. 

“Results of the study provide preliminary research data suggesting that wildland firefighters may be at greater risk of developing mental health conditions than the general public, and that a significant proportion of those conditions are under-detected and under-treated,” wrote the authors, Patricia O’Brien, a clinical psychologist working on PTSD issues for the Veterans Administration in its Portland, Oregon office and Duncan Campbell, a associate professor of psychology at the University of Montana.

The forest service seeks to maintain a force of 11,200 part- or full-time firefighters; another 3,000 or so work for the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management and 3,400 for the Bureau of Indian Affairs; some 1,000 serve part- or full time at the National Park Service. The rosters seem close to full, but some firefighters question whether the agencies are putting  rookies or near-rookies into management roles after more experienced firefighters quit. 

Yosemite National Park. Kelly Martin

The powerful attraction of wildland firefighting

The lure of the job, particularly for young, adventurous men, is potent. The workforce is predominantly male, predominantly white and often from rural areas. “The culture is one of work hard, play hard,” said Jonathan Golden, a specialist in legislative affairs at the nonprofit Grassroots Wildland Firefighters. “You are initially promised adventure and excitement and copious amounts of time off in the winter. It used to be a really good job for students.”

“The culture is one of work hard, play hard. You are initially promised adventure and excitement and copious amounts of time off in the winter. It used to be a really good job for students.”

–Jonathan Golden, Grassroots

But, Golden continued, “After you do it a little while, you begin to realize life passes you by back home. Friends and families have significant milestones that you are absent from — marriages and births.”

Lucas Mayfield, the current president of Grassroots and the fire program manager at Montana’s Mystery Ranch, sees things much the same way. “This job starts as an adventure when you are young,” he said. “From 2001 to 2004 I was a college student. From 2004 to 2010 I was a seasonal and permanent seasonal employee. I was only responsible for myself. In the winter, I snowboarded my face off. So I’m still living an adventure — winter was an adventure, fire seasons were an adventure. I was 10 feet tall and bulletproof.”

Then, he said, “I married an amazing woman, had a daughter.” Mortgage payments arrived. “Now I’m fighting fire because I had to…The adventure became a job. Not something I loved, but something I had to do.” The long summer and fall absences, he added, “can lead to a sense of isolation….That becomes really difficult for people to square. Plenty of friends turn to drugs and alcohol in the wintertime to cope. “

“Now I’m fighting fire because I had to…The adventure became a job. Not something I loved, but something I had to do.”

– Lucas Mayfield, former wildland firefighter

Joe Suarez became a wildland firefighter after leaving the Navy and studying forestry and firefighting at Reedley College. After his marriage, he took a non-firefighting office job for three years, but the pull of the woods drew him back. After being hired for a permanent job in 2001, he worked in firefighting everywhere from Florida to South Dakota to Utah.

“Did I feel a sense of danger?” he asked. “I didn’t feel it was dangerous at that time. I think there was probably a point in time that I felt invincible.”

The summers away from his family strained the marriage to the breaking point. After a divorce, his wife moved to California and he followed to be near his son and daughter, joining the Arrowhead hotshot crew in Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park in 2009. That year, Suarez was working on a fire elsewhere in the state and saw Brian Hughes in action. He then tried assiduously to recruit Hughes to the Arrowhead hotshots. He succeeded in 2015; Hughes briefly lived with him. Then in August 2018, Suarez sent Hughes’s crew to the Ferguson Fire.

Prescribed fire training exchange with Cultural Fire Management Council, Yurok Tribe. Kelly Martin

The convoluted course of dealing with a friend’s death

Immediately after Hughes’s death, Suarez said, “I wanted to make sure these guys and gals were O.K.” He asked if they wanted to go out to a fire, before sending them. He also organized them to work in a different setting — volunteering at a nursing home — which he thought would help them cope with roiling emotions. The services of the clinicians and trauma experts using Critical Incident Stress Management protocols were available to both him and his hotshots.

“We did go through CISM right after,” he said. “Those individuals were definitely available to us. But that was not what I was about. I suppressed it. I just wanted to go forward and not think about it and be distracted by work.”  

The following year, “I was trying to build the crew back up,” Suarez said. “I’d say to myself, ‘This is what Brian would want to do. Just keep hard charging. Building the crew and fighting fires.’” But he said he had become brittle and angry. “I felt that my temper, my tolerance was really low at the time. My actions were a lot more aggressive … They were definitely toxic.” 

He cloaked himself in an assertive machismo; to describe it, he quoted the firefighters’ mantra: “if something did hurt, I’d rub dirt on it.” When his subordinates came to him seeking help on some issue, “it would irritate me. There was no compassion for individuals. I recognized that in myself, and addressed it. I needed to step away.”  

After a long pause, Suarez said, “I’m kind of lying to you.” There were unspoken reasons for his aggressiveness and harshness. “There’s guilt — this guilt will never go away.” Guilt for recruiting Brian Hughes, for having Hughes lead the crew instead of Suarez, for inconsequential decisions that, if changed, would have avoided the accident. “I used to struggle with that. Every once in a while it still comes up — but I am able to process it and manage it.

“I’ve forgiven myself. I’ve apologized to Brian. That helped a lot.”

When he talked to his own managers about his situation and his need for a change from working where he’d been the day of Brian’s death, they were helpful, he said. “That change would mean removing me from that environment. I needed to be away from that and dealing with so many stresses.” His managers, he said, helped him step back. “I’ve been somewhat disengaged from the crew for three years.” Now with the Park Service’s Pacific West division, Suarez runs a unit that works with drones. 

Firefighters established a new group to advocate for change

Burning debris piles in Yosemite National Park.  Kelly Martin

Four years ago, wildland firefighters concerned about both pay — an entry-level firefighter in 2021 could earn $13.45 an hour, lower than minimum wage for some fast-food workers — and mental health issues formed the group Grassroots Wildland Firefighters. As Lucas Mayfield, the current president, described it, “We have to provide a way for firefighters to enter and exit the career in a healthy manner.”

Grassroots assembled data showing that entry-level wildland firefighters working for the state of California earned roughly twice as much as their federal counterparts

And a new federal report noted that federal firefighters’ compensation “trails that of state agencies in California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington by an average of 33 percent” and benefits also lag those of state agencies. The report added, “because of low base wages and guaranteed hours, firefighters have come to rely on and expect significant overtime and hazard pay,” putting themselves in harm’s way just to make ends meet. Last year Congress’s Government Accountability Office identified pay as a major barrier to recruiting firefighters.

The pay concern was addressed, though not permanently, in 2021 as more than $250 million was allocated in the bipartisan Infrastructure Act, to give firefighters a salary boost of either $20,000 or 50 percent of their pay, whichever was less. Those funds will soon be exhausted and have not yet been renewed long-term, but the compromise continuing resolution passed in early October extends the benefits through Nov. 17.

In May of last year, Bruce Westerman, the Arkansas congressman who chairs the House committee on Natural Resources, wrote to the Agriculture Secretary complaining about staffing shortages. He argued that as of mid-May 2022, “fires have already consumed nearly 1.3 million acres of land and yet the Forest Service has only filled an estimated 73 percent of its firefighting staffing needs…  There are also more than 1,560 firefighter vacancies in California and some northern California units are expected to only be 50 percent staffed.”

Now a measure that would make the 2021 raise permanent is moving through the Senate but is languishing in Westerman’s committee. Idaho’s Mike Simpson, who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee, last month called on Westerman’s panel to pass legislation that would make the temporary pay increases and benefits permanent. 

Jonathan Golden, Grassroots’ legislative specialist, said people are quitting in part because “so much of the stress and anxiety comes from the need to chase overtime hours… If you solve the pay problem in a meaningful way, you might be able to make a dent in the mental problem.”

Federal commission’s recommendations for change

A road closure during the 2018 Ferguson Fire in Yosemite National Park. Kelly Martin

Last month, a major report from the federal WIldland Mitigation and Management Commission called for a year-round workforce model to replace the seasonal employment that currently typifies a firefighter’s work, and “establishing compensation, benefits and healthcare (including mental and physical) that reflect the essential role of these personnel…”

John Winn of the Agriculture Department’s public affairs office [the Forest Service is part of the Agriculture Department] noted that firefighter pay has increased. But some of those increases could disappear if the House committee doesn’t act on legislation to renew them. Also, a new program establishes year-round prevention and mental health training and will provide post-traumatic stress care and create new trauma support services.

But recognizing the stresses created by inadequate pay and exposure to hazards and trauma, the commission made recommendations that parallel the goals of the Grassroots organization. These include providing increased access “including both availability and duration” to mental health resources for all firefighters. As important, the report said, is requiring the government to assume that depression, generalized anxiety and PTSD, are automatically considered work-related ailments, like lung or heart disease. That would ensure the cost of the care provided is automatically covered.

As Winn wrote in June, “without increased investment in hiring and retaining the workforce” — as well as ensuring economic and health needs are addressed —  recruitment will suffer and “federal land managers will have more limits” on their ability to mitigate wildfire risk before the fires break out.

This year, the federal agencies established the Joint Wildfire Behavioral Health Program, supported by funds from the bipartisan Infrastructure Act. An April planning meeting focused on the need to “improve the current firefighter culture” — including a macho ethic which could stigmatize mental-health struggles  — and the need for “trauma-informed, culturally competent clinicians and case management,” said Winn.

The official understanding of the psychological cost of firefighting and the moves to make more resources available to firefighters are welcome,  but there is complexity in both ensuring appropriate services are available and are underwritten by the government, and that the clinicians know how to make their approach and get firefighters to confide in them.

Peter Dutchick, a leader in Grassroots, was a member of a Bureau of Land Management firefighting crew and now works for the Forest Service; he has been in the firefighting world since 2003. His first 17 years were in field operations, three years ago he started to do workforce training.

He also feels that the stoic, macho culture of his world is changing.“Ten or 15 years ago you just didn’t hear about” the work’s impact on mental health, he said. “You might hear about suicide” — three of his workmates have committed suicide — “but we weren’t talking about these things” Now, he continued, the leaders of the wildfire organizations are “able to recognize what it is that creates a more healthy culture.” 

Southern Missouri Prescribed Fire Training Exchange. After using intentional fire, firelighters use water to halt further spread along the control line. Kelly Martin

Counseling firefighters is necessary but tricky

Nick Arnett has experienced it all, as a firefighter, a chaplain, and a trained specialist who has provided critical incident stress management and peer support to public safety agencies including the federal Forest Service and California’s fire agency. After years of fighting fires and counseling colleagues, he has enough insights to fill several books — which he has done.

But knowing how to counsel others doesn’t leave you immune from trauma as you fight fires yourself. Arnett, who is based out of the Stanislaus National Forest and the Spring Valley Fire Department near San Jose, was enmeshed in the intense firefighting work during the lightning-strike summer of 2020, when storms ignited major fires throughout northern California.

That summer’s SCU complex of fires in the San Francisco Bay area was the third largest in state history — until the August complex lit up Mendocino National Forest, burning more than a million acres. “I was in the initial attack on the SCU complex; it was the toughest day of firefighting I had,” he said. Then he was sent to the August complex. “I was in a fire camp that got burned over. Nobody was hurt, but I spent a couple of nights in a burned-out field.” Dread invaded his consciousness. “I keep having thoughts of being burned alive. And I keep pushing them out of my head.” 

“Nobody was hurt, but I spent a couple of nights in a burned-out field. I keep having thoughts of being burned alive. And I keep pushing them out of my head.”

Nick Arnett, wildland firefighter based at Spring Valley Fire Department near San Jose

He told this to a clinician weeks later. The clinician asked: “What would it mean to let that thought in your head?” “I burst out crying,” Arnett said. “I  said, ‘I couldn’t do this job.’” When he recounted his feelings to other firefighters, “all of them said, ‘Me too. Me too.’”  One of his aims as a counselor is to create me-too moments when firefighters can share feelings. “When you think you [might be] the only one having these feelings, it’s rough. You can’t carry that alone.” 

One of his central points: counselors and peers should invite stressed firefighters to share their feelings; they should not insist that the firefighters must feel traumatized. “There are a lot of firefighters who are pushing back, quite appropriately,” when pressured to accept support they didn’t seek. “We can’t convince our brains that something wasn’t traumatic when it was. Logic is no help,” Arnett said. “But if we go to someone who’s not having a strong reaction and we can convince them that something should be traumatic — then we make it traumatic for them. That’s the tightrope act.”     

Arnett has laid out his concerns and suggestions in a 2017 pocket guide called “Stress Management and Crisis Response.” Among his ideas: “The biggest stressor is helplessness. The feeling that things are out of control. Our job is to walk into chaos and bring it under control.”

Firefighting trauma is not limited to firefighters

Everything seemed out of control after May 24, 2021 when Michelle Hart got the nighttime call telling her that her husband, Tim, a smokejumper, had been badly injured after colliding with boulders as he jumped into the Eicks Fire in southern New Mexico. All she was told was that he was being taken by air ambulance to an unspecified trauma center.

Hart, who lives in Cody, Wyoming, said she didn’t know where the New Mexico fire was. She and friends called a long list of trauma centers asking if Tim Hart — or a John Doe — had been brought in with severe head injuries. When they finally located him in El Paso, Texas, doctors immediately got on the phone and asked for Hart’s blood type. Doctors said, she recounted, that no identification was provided for Hart they couldn’t do transfusions without knowing his blood type. Tim Hart, who was 36, died June 2. 

“There’s so much comparison between a domestic workforce that’s fighting wildfires and our military. There’s so much support for military personnel. Everything we do for them, we don’t do for firefighters.”

– Michelle Hart, firefighter widow

Friends, co-workers, and family surrounded Michelle Hart in the aftermath. But as this ring of support began to dissipate, “I don’t know what I would have done without therapy” she said. “I was in a very dark place. When a lot of that support went away, I was left floundering…”

She added, “I was left to find someone to help me.” She is still angry that, to get access to her federally-sponsored life insurance, she had to provide documentation proving his death, like medical records or news articles. To get access to insurance, she had to relive her trauma, over and over. She envies the treatment afforded to military families. “There’s so much comparison between a domestic workforce that’s fighting wildfires and our military. There’s so much support for military personnel. Everything we do for them, we don’t do for firefighters.”

Kelly Martin of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters said that until insurers are required to accept that post-traumatic stress is a consequence of firefighting experiences, like cancer or heart attacks, “the same thing that we keep seeing over and over” will continue. “There really hasn’t been any standard or sort of guidelines saying there’s a proximate cause of PTSD associated with wildland firefighting.”  

She added that fire-caused stress is not automatically recognized as work-related, so “the employees get stuck in this kind of huge void… to get help they need they pay out of pocket.” As a leader, “you are expected to take care of the health and wellness of your employees,” she concluded. “When something like this massively fails, you can’t help but take it personally.”


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Topics: Wildfire & the West


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