Why Firefighters Are Facing A Growing Mental Health Challenge

Feb 16, 2021
Originally published on February 16, 2021 7:23 am
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Fire seasons are getting worse and longer. In some places, it's hardly a fire season at all; it's the year. Climate change is likely to accelerate that, and that is changing the lives of people who fight fires. NPR's Nathan Rott reports that many face a mental health crisis.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: The call came late last September at about 3 in the morning. Cal Fire Captain Matt Newberry was on duty.

MATT NEWBERRY: So I got up and went directly to the fire.

ROTT: Even though he and most of his crew had just got off one of the largest blazes in California history.

NEWBERRY: And we fought fire for, I think, 56 hours straight before we had any relief.

ROTT: Nearly 2 1/2 days straight. The fire ripped through Napa County the way that fires do now, rapidly growing in size. Hundreds of homes were destroyed in the first few days, despite everything Newberry and his crew did. Near the end of their shift, he watched as a good friend and fellow firefighter lost it.

NEWBERRY: One of probably the toughest dudes in our unit literally have a mental breakdown and fall to his knees and just cry - and he couldn't do it anymore.

ROTT: Newberry had been there himself. Four years earlier, after a fellow firefighter died near him on a fire, he started self-medicating - drinking, doing drugs. His marriage started falling apart, and his relationship with his four daughters was on the rocks.

NEWBERRY: I just - I crumbled. I wanted to quit.

ROTT: There was no joy in fighting fire anymore. Year after year, the blazes just got worse - firestorm after firestorm, thousands of homes lost, communities destroyed.

NEWBERRY: You just feel defeated. You know? The things that we used to do that worked 10 years ago are no longer working anymore.

ROTT: That sentiment of defeat, resignation is becoming a more frequent refrain in the world of firefighting. Last year, after unprecedented wildfires swept across eastern Australia, we heard similar stories from the rural firefighters who had spent months trying to contain seemingly unstoppable flames. There was volunteer firefighter Steve Hillyar standing in the wreckage of his destroyed home.

STEVE HILLYAR: Certain things trigger me a little bit.

ROTT: Like smoke detectors.

HILLYAR: Most people don't realize when your - when their house is on fire or multiple homes are on fire, that's all you hear is smoke detectors.

ROTT: There was Sophie Taylor, a captain who was struggling to adjust back to life after the months-long adrenaline rush.

SOPHIE TAYLOR: Yeah, you just feel flat all the time.

ROTT: And there was Ian Sprall, a chaplain who had to talk to the families of fallen and injured firefighters as their loved ones fought an unwinnable battle.

IAN SPRALL: From a spiritual and psychological perspective, I found this space very confronting because I have faith that God intervenes. And I prayed that God would intervene, and then it didn't happen.

CHRISTINE ERIKSEN: Many of these firefighters who are often portrayed as heroes in media reportage, they don't feel like heroes. They feel like they've failed.

ROTT: Dr. Christine Eriksen is a researcher who focuses on the social impacts of wildfire.

ERIKSEN: So there's some real issues going on in terms of their well-being.

ROTT: Eriksen has worked with firefighters both in the U.S. and her native Australia, two places where wildfires are getting worse as greenhouse gas emissions from human activities warm the world. A recent study finds that climate change has pushed California's rainy season back by a month, extending the burning season. More generally, scientists say a warming world is causing wildfires to burn more frequently, more intensely in more places. That, coupled with our building habits, means that more and more property is at risk. Meanwhile, society's expectations of firefighters and firefighters' expectations of themselves have not changed, Eriksen says. They're still supposed to put the fires out.

ERIKSEN: That notion becomes a very difficult tradition to uphold when something like climate change is completely obliterating all the parameters that they used to operate within.

ROTT: A report published by the U.S. Global Change Research Program in 2016 found that climate-fueled disasters are undermining people's mental health and well-being. First responders, the research found, were among the groups most at risk.

MIKE MING: We see a lot of people calling us and saying, hey, I need some help.

ROTT: Mike Ming is in charge of Cal Fire's employee support services, which focuses on the mental and physical health of the state's roughly 8,000 firefighters. And while he's hesitant to fully blame climate change for worsening fires in his state, he says there's no doubt that the physical, mental and emotional challenges that firefighters face year to year are only growing. Statistics are hard to come by, but a 2018 study out of Florida State University found that far more wildland firefighters have suicidal thoughts than even their urban counterparts.

MING: Even your 30-year veterans, they're being brought to their knees by the stuff that we're seeing that is atypical of what we've seen in our careers.

ROTT: Calls have increased from people suffering from anxiety, depression, burnout, addiction problems. Some folks are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The pandemic, Ming says, has made all of this worse. His programs help set those people up with counseling and resources to try to find help. It's created a peer support program, recruiting firefighters who have sought help before, like Matt Newberry.

NEWBERRY: We train our lives. We work out. We train, train, train. Our body's in great shape. But we never think to take care of our biggest muscle, the one that's going to save us when it comes down to it, and that's our brain.

ROTT: Wellness and mindfulness are now big things at Cal Fire. New and old firefighters are taught breathing exercises and other ways to manage their stress in the moment. Newberry has got his crew doing yoga. And emotionally, he says he's doing better.

NEWBERRY: I'm much more self-aware of how I'm feeling and what I'm doing.

ROTT: But he knows it'll be a long-term challenge to not regress. There will be another fire. There will be more deaths. He knows the trends. That's why he thinks more people in wildland fire need to be talking about this issue. Unions and others are pushing federal agencies like the Forest Service to do more for firefighters' mental health. Researcher Christine Eriksen says, of course, that would help, but so can the public.

ERIKSEN: As a society, we really need to step up and provide avenues for people to reach out and say, I'm not coping; I need help.

ROTT: Because the need is only going to grow.

Nathan Rott, NPR News.

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