Deprivation Binge

Burning out: the silent crisis spreading among wildland firefighters

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Llew had never been so certain of his imminent death.

It was going to hurt.

The wildfire in central Washington had already bested the firefighting crews that morning, forcing everyone to retreat to safety zones. Then Llew found himself in the passenger seat of an SUV at the exact wrong moment.

He and another wildland firefighter were scouting the fire’s movement when the wind changed. The driver had maneuvered them downhill, out of the black – a safer, already burned zone – and into a patch of fresh fuel. Ponderosa pine, brush and grass were igniting all around them. The 6ft-tall wall of flanking fire on their right suddenly blew up into a 100ft-high conflagration which overran their main escape route. The air blew through the open windows with so much strength that loose papers in the backseat were sent flying around the car.

Those who’ve been close to wildfires often describe the sound as a barreling freight train, or TV static turned up to maximum volume. It reminded Llew of a tornado.

“It’s hard to explain the sound trees make when they torch, much less a half-mile of them in a line in front of you,” he says. “It’s deafening. It feels like it’s walking up on you.”

In his 16 years as a wildland firefighter, Llew, who requested to use his nickname in this story, had experienced his fair share of near misses. There was the helicopter that caught fire while he was on board, the untold number of tumbling boulders he’d sidestepped just in time, and the recurring confrontations with loss and devastation: blackened teddy bears, melted photo albums, dreams reduced to ashes. But he’d never felt as close to death as he did on that hot July day in 2013.

Time became imprecise amid the urgency of survival. Spot fires were coalescing, closing in around them. Llew can’t be sure of how long the pair were in real danger. He wavered between anger – at himself for getting into this situation – and sadness, for what his family, his son, would have to endure.

At some point – it could have been 10 minutes later, maybe 30 – the deafening crack of flames retreated as the pair located a new route out amid the heavy gray smoke and separated themselves from the growing blaze.

Llew let out a deep breath. He didn’t know it yet, but a delicate mental balance had tipped. He would spend six more years working for the United States Forest Service, but he’d never again be the same firefighter.

Close calls were ‘a rite of passage’

Llew was five years old when he saw his first wildfire, and he never outgrew the allure of fighting them on the frontlines. He was hypnotized by the power he witnessed as “Mother Nature threw down her best”, the adrenaline that came with digging a fire line or wielding a chainsaw, and the solidarity that developed among his crew each season. But after the near entrapment, he began to struggle to do the job he’d loved for so long.

Insomnia became his unwelcome bedfellow. On fire assignments, he’d lie awake all night after sweating through 16-hour shifts, sometimes for five nights in a row, and then get up and go back to sawing trees or leading crews. He once admitted himself to an emergency room at 2am, begging the doctors for help falling asleep.

Remains from the Bootleg wildfires in Oregon, 2021.
Remains from the Bootleg wildfires in Oregon, 2021. Photograph: Evan Baden

Driving near cliffs, even on passes he was familiar with, began to induce panic attacks that felt like heart attacks. He’d freeze, become dizzy and develop vertigo. “Like I was going to run off the road and die,” Llew, now 45, says. “I couldn’t push the brake hard enough.”

Llew had fought fires in 36 states and worked on five different national forests, but the confidence slowly built over that time soon morphed into apprehension. He grew more hesitant and risk averse. Where he used to find excitement, he felt anxiety. “It was hard to find joy in general,” he says of his mindset at that time. “You make it about what you can’t do. It’s hard for that not to start to become your own internal personal identity. It’s exhausting.”

During fire briefings, he’d subtly breathe in through his nose and out through his mouth to hide panic attacks as hot waves seized his body; he called it “panic with a straight face”. He was ashamed of these reactions. How could he be trusted to lead his team into the flames when he couldn’t even control his own body, his own fear?

“The first decade of my career, nobody ever talked about stress, nobody ever talked about trauma, nobody ever talked about close calls affecting you. It was just a rite of passage,” he says. “When I came home, I was kind of made to feel like I fucked up. Like I deserved it somehow.”

Llew was finally diagnosed with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and panic disorder in 2017. He continued fighting fires.

Witnesses to human suffering and lost landscapes

Fire seasons are now, on average, 78 days longer than they were in 1970, causing additional exposure to stress and trauma for the thousands of wildland firefighters working across the country. In many parts of the west, warmer temperatures, severe droughts, historic fire suppression, poor forest management and a growing number of people living in the wildland-urban interface have created an unsustainable crisis.

In 2020 alone, Colorado experienced its three largest wildfires in state history, and more than 4m acres (16,000 sq km) burned in California, where the August Complex fire was named the state’s largest ever. This year is on pace to be even more destructive.

Fighting wildfires is a physically exhausting and risky job that requires extended time away from home and regular confrontations with hazardous situations. It’s also not particularly well compensated: entry-level federal wildland firefighters earn a base pay below $14 an hour. In comparison, the same job with the California department of forestry and fire protection nets around $26 per hour. (In general, municipal and state firefighting agencies tend to pay better and offer more robust behavioral health services.)

Federal wildland firefighters earn low pay for a job that is dangerous and exhausting.
Federal wildland firefighters earn low pay for a job that is dangerous and exhausting. Photograph: Evan Baden

Many wildland firefighters are seasonally employed, working for six or so months a year. Depending on their positions, they may work 16 hours a day, up to 14 days at a time, with two mandatory days off between “rolls” (their term for those two-week shifts). Sometimes, calls come in so quickly that firefighters don’t have time to kiss their spouses or children goodbye. Sometimes they fight fires – and watch houses burn – in their own communities.

These firefighters rely on 1,000 hours or more of overtime and hazard pay to cover their bills throughout the year. Some sleep in their cars during the season because housing is too expensive in the areas where they work. In June, Joe Biden called firefighter pay “unacceptable”. His comment was part of an announcement that some federal firefighters would receive temporary pay raises to at least $15 an hour this year.

The steady accumulation of mental strains – financial stress, a demanding work environment, isolation from loved ones and the pressure to manage public expectations – creates the perfect storm for mental health problems to emerge.

“The more traumas that you have layered on top of each other, the more likely that you will develop PTSD or depression,” says Dr Angie Moreland-Johnson, a clinical psychologist and co-director of the Center for Firefighter Behavioral Health in Charleston. “Wildland firefighters are seeing close calls and really scary situations, so if they’re having those layer on top of each other, then that risk for mental health concerns just keeps doubling.”

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Wildland firefighters are at elevated risk for depression, alcohol use disorder, sleep deprivation, post-traumatic stress and suicide. Peer-reviewed data focused on this specialized group is limited, but there is ample research…

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