USA — An area nearly the size of Delaware has burned in the Northwest this year and the season has weeks left to go. For Oregon and Washington, that’s 3 1/2 times the area’s 10-year average.
Climate change and the dire consequences it holds for the future of America’s forests was a central theme of the Forest Service’s quadrennial review published this year.
The drought plaguing the West will continue, the report says. Winter snowpacks will melt earlier, leaving newly spawned vegetation to dry and become fuel for fire. More insects will leave trees dead or dying. Firefighting seasons will keep getting longer.
TRAUMA STILL PRESENT
The wildfire community is still recovering emotionally from the loss last year of 19 hot-shot firefighters from Prescott, Ariz., killed in a box canyon as a fire generating temperatures up to 2,000 degrees roared over them.
“When something like that happens, it’s kind of tough to accept,” says Neil Gamboa, who supervises a federal hotshot crew from San Bernardino, Calif.
The 19 Prescott firefighters who died were among 34 wild-land firefighting deaths in 2013, the most in 20 years, according to federal officials. Six more have died so far this year.
In addition to the physical dangers of the job, advocates see symptoms that mirror what soldiers display: a reluctance to seek therapy, self-medication by alcohol, even scattered suicides.
After more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan where troops served long and multiple deployments, more than a half-million have been diagnosed with mental health issues and thousands have committed suicide.
Those who work with wilderness firefighters worry about similar trends developing within that group.
“There’s a heck of a lot of post-traumatic stress going on in the community right now,” says Burk Minor, director of the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, located in Boise, Idaho, near the National Interagency Fire Center, the headquarters for battling forest fires.
The foundation supports injured firefighters and families of those who die on duty. As hotshot crews and other wildfire crews cycle through Boise to and from the front lines, many stop in to unwind and vent pent-up emotions, sometimes through tears, Minor says.
“These are big, bad guys. They got lumps in their throat,” Minor says. “They see somebody get killed, somebody hit the ground but their parachute didn’t open, that’s not a pretty sight. And that leaves definite damage on these guys.”
There are about 26,000 federal wild-land firefighters and support personnel, including hotshot crews and parachuting smoke-jumpers, and perhaps another 8,000 to 10,000 employed by state or local agencies, says U.S. Forest Services spokesman Mike Ferris.
Federal fire officials say that while their firefighters may be encountering some of the same emotional stress as combat troops, the Forest Service doesn’t have the medical support resources of the Army, Navy or Marine Corps.
The Forest Service hired its first full-time staff doctor 18 months ago, and this was in the midst of an agency fire budget that has been shrinking in recent years.
“We do not have a handle on it,” Ivan Pupulidy, a Forest Service human performance specialist, says about the extent of emotional trauma among wildfire crews. “It’s an area of deep concern for us and one that we mean to explore.”
SCARRED FOR LIFE
Jesse Shirley remembers nothing but orange flames around him when he was trapped on the firefighting front lines of northwest Nevada in 2006.
Then a federal hotshot crew member, Shirley was picked up by a fire devil a kind of tornado of flames and pinned against a bulldozer. Forty-three percent of his body was burned, mostly the backs of his legs. As he waited for a helicopter flight without the benefit of cooling water to douse his wounds, the burns kept burning, going from second to third degree.
“It’s not so much the physical scars,” says Shirley, 35, who left the hotshots in 2009 and is today a fire prevention officer living near Lake Tahoe. “Those heal. It’s more these emotional scars.”
A growing state of isolation and hyper-vigilance led him in the years that followed to contemplate suicide, Shirley says. “My world slowly got smaller and smaller. It got so bad, I gave the guns to my wife (Megan) to get them out of the house.”
Shirley was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He has improved with treatment and now works to help other firefighters deal with their emotional problems.
Wildland Foundation Executive Director Vicki Minor Burk Minor’s mother estimates that as many as one in four such firefighters struggle with emotional trauma.
She says her organization counted six firefighter suicides during 2013. If accurate, it suggests a rough suicide rate of 17 per 100,000, far higher than the national average and similar to the pace of these deaths in the military.
“Our government, our fire officials, the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, they’re really good at taking care of the land and they know how to fight fire,” Vicki Minor says. “They don’t know how to take care of their people.”
Federal workers get free visits to a contracted private counselor, but many firefighters complain these providers are not schooled in PTSD treatment, Vicki Minor says. “I’ve had several of these men say that they had to pay for a therapist out of their own pocket,” she says.
The Forest Service recently published pocket-sized pamphlets with tips on traumatic stress and resilience. But the guides offer nothing about where to seek help if necessary, except to cite websites from the Department of Veterans Affairs and private suicide support groups.
Forest Service Fire Management Director Harbour says the deaths of the 19 Prescott firefighters were a wake-up call on the emotional stress firefighters may incur. “How do we deal with what we carry after we go through a traumatic incident?” he asks.
He and his staff have turned to the Marine Corps for ideas about building emotional resilience in firefighters. He urged in a briefing paper to senior officials that “we have developed wonderful new tools to help physically protect firefighters. Now is the time to ‘build a better brain!'”
Others are moving to provide more direct assistance. Brendan McDonough the sole survivor of the decimated Prescott hotshot crew, who was on lookout duty when his comrades became trapped by fire says he struggles with stress-related problems.
McDonough, who now works for the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, is trying to create a non-profit organization to fulfill a dream of building a “healing center” in Prescott where first-responders, including troubled wildfire crews and their families, can seek treatment.
“I’ve seen what was lacking with what I went through,” McDonough says. “The government (officials), they’re slow and they have things done the way they want them done and that doesn’t always work.”
Pupulidy, the Forest Service human performance specialist, says he admires the plan. “They saw a void. And hats off to them for doing it,” he says. “Shame on us for not doing it first.”