California, USA — In the yearsince the Esperanza Fire claimed the crew of Engine 57, Susie Carlson hasn’ttouched the mural she began in the U.S. Forest Service station she shared withthe five men.
Carlson said she can’t bring herself to complete the mural over four walls,painted from photographs Carlson and the fallen crew snapped of nearby mountainsand streams.
Carlson, a fire prevention technician, is the only member of the old crew toremain at the Alandale station near Idyllwild. In her half dozen years there,she spent days at a time working side by side with the men. She loved them likebrothers.
Once winter comes and the new crew goes home, she might add animals to themural fallen Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser and the others encouraged her to paint tobrighten the aging station.
It’s been a tough year. Fatigue and depression sometimes overwhelm her. Griefexperts say the second and third years can be even more difficult.
Carlson rarely speaks about the Esperanza Fire, neither do the five membersof the new Engine 57 crew. Carlson cries when adding up all the fire took.
“You think about how many people loved them and how many people theyloved.”
“Were they stolen from us?” Carlson wonders.
Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins, whose unit had jointcommand of Esperanza with the forest service, said the crew of Engine 57 was”stopped in their tracks.”
The first two firefighters to arrive and discover their mortally injuredcolleagues have stories so terrible that recounting them would bringinconsolable tears, said Hawkins, who has called the day “horrific.”
“For some firefighters, life will never be the same. They cannot reallydeal with what went on,” Hawkins said.
“No one ever goes to a fire expecting to not come home. The SanBernardino National Forest firefighters readily answered the request and thenpaid the ultimate price with their lives. We all still hurt.”
Loutzenhiser’s widow, Maria, said she worries about Carlson and her husband’sclose friends who discovered him — and who continue fighting fires.
“Everybody is still grief stricken. A lot of them are reliving thatincident in their head — the smell, the environment, even the sound of a radio,”Maria Loutzenhiser said.
More could be done by wildland agencies to address grieving co-workers, MariaLoutzenhiser said. Experts agree.
The wildland firefighting culture interferes with the grief andpost-traumatic stress process, said Vicki Minor, director of the WildlandFirefighters Foundation.
The nonprofit organization provides support for families of fallenfirefighters, including those of Esperanza.
‘It’s Like War’
It recently began an after-care program for grieving firefighters with helpfrom an American Indian healer and a sweat lodge.
“They are traumatized. They’re hurting and they have nowhere to go withthe grief they are feeling,” Minor said. “In wildfires, the fire doesnot let them stop and grieve. It’s like war. They might be involved in afatality and the next week they’re off in a different state fighting anotherfire.”
“We are looking for long-term healing for their co-workers,” Minorsaid. “They cannot be treated during fire season because that’s where theymake their money,” she said.
The culture of wildland firefighting also makes it difficult to deal withtrauma because seasonal workers scatter afterward, Minor said.
Bill Gabbert, executive director of the International Association of WildlandFire and a former U.S. Forest Service firefighter on the El Cariso Hotshot Crewnear Lake Elsinore, said firefighters are not likely to talk about thework-related deaths of their colleagues and friends.
“They don’t want to think so much about the safety risks and they don’twant to think about what the worst possible outcome could be,” he said.
Gabbert said his own hotshot crew, before he joined it, experienced twoburnovers where multiple lives were lost in each.
“It was a major part of the history of the crew but we never talkedabout it,” he said.
U.S. Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell and San Bernardino National ForestSupervisor Jeanne Wade Evans each said that every attempt has been made to reachout to all Forest Service employees who fought the Esperanza Fire, or who workedwith the men of Engine 57.
Both officials pointed to the Critical Incident Stress Management team sentin immediately after the fire to help.
A team of six people at the Los Angeles County Fire Department arrived atEsperanza aware of two realties: the mental anguish wrought by the deaths wouldbe severe and winning the trust of those in pain wouldn’t be easy.
The group was no stranger to disaster response, said Anne Kellogg, mentalhealth coordinator for the group. They had been to the Gulf Coast afterHurricane Katrina and handled traumatic events, including fatal fires.
But they had not been sent into the aftermath of a forest fire withcasualties, and they knew the tight knit wildland fire community would bedifficult to penetrate. The group enlisted half a dozen Forest Service officialsin various positions to help them reach out to agency employees.
Suffering Far From Over
In general, Kellogg said participation in support services has been aboutaverage following Esperanza, compared with other incidents in which they’ve beeninvolved. The trauma still facing those most affected, she said, is far beyondaverage.
“It was a horrific event they went through — it was off the charts,”she said. “It is the ultimate of insults, the worst of violations when afirefighter dies by fire.”
Even after today’s anniversary, Kellogg knows the suffering is far from over.She said often outreach seems to taper off too quickly after tragedies.
“When the incident happens, there’s a lot of support, but then everyonemoves on,” she said. “But the depression hits hard in year two orthree.”
Some embraced the support of Kellogg’s group. Others remained closed off,choosing other outlets for their grief.
“Some people will turn to their church or a spiritual outlet. They’lltalk to their families. They’ll write. They’ll drink.”
Carlson has sought solace in her art to celebrate the lives of those shemourns.
She’s touching up an image of Smokey the Bear releasing five doves. She plansto return it to a roadside where it stood for months after Esperanza.
“When you touch death, there’s a part that can’t stay and mourn or yougo with them. The grief is so great. Their lives have to be celebrated,”Carlson said.
“I am finding strength and faith to choose life over death.”