Firefighter Suicides Rise in the Wake of Deadly Wildland Blazes

20 May 2019

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USA – The death toll from extreme fires in California is rising from an unexpected source: Firefighters are committing suicide.

The stress of fighting repeated blazes and seeing bodies of those killed is taxing firefighters’ mental health, fire officials said yesterday at a joint California Senate and Assembly hearing.

It’s “an invisible cost that’s rarely discussed,” Capt. Mike Feyh of the Sacramento Fire Department told state lawmakers.

Last year’s record-breaking Camp Fire in Paradise, north of Sacramento, killed 86 and wiped out the town, the same day another fire killed three in Los Angeles County. Wildfires that raced through Napa, Sonoma and other parts of Northern California’s wine country in 2017 killed 44.

“Firefighters are away from their families for longer periods of time, deployed too often and come across way too many deaths,” Feyh said.

In the case of the Camp Fire, many firefighters lived nearby and knew people who were killed.

“It was very difficult for them as they watched their neighborhoods burned down,” Feyh said. “They battled the wildfire for weeks and were part of the body recovery process. Facing the kind of tragedy can be too big a burden for anybody.”

In California, 46 firefighters and emergency medical workers have committed suicide in the last five years, according to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, which tracks the deaths.

It’s happening across the country. So far this year for all states combined, 33 firefighters and emergency medical personnel have killed themselves, said Jeff Dill, founder and CEO of the alliance. That follows 513 fire responder suicides nationwide in the previous four years.

Dill said those probably represent a significant undercount. He said it’s estimated that fewer than half of the suicides are reported.

The information on suicides in California came as lawmakers heard from fire officials and local community leaders on what needs to be done as the state faces repeated blazes. Ten of the most destructive fires in state history have happened since 2015. Several people at the hearing said climate change contributed by drying out vegetation and forests and by worsening droughts.

“Fires are burning with greater ferocity and doing more damage than ever before,” said Tony Gossner, fire chief in Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco.

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has proposed $769.6 million for fire prevention and added firefighters and equipment in his fiscal 2019-2020 budget. Last year, the California Legislature authorized more than $1 billion over five years for prevention and safety measures, with funds coming out of revenues from the state’s carbon cap-and-trade program.

At the hearing, fire officials said they needed more mental health support for emergency workers, both in the field during events and after the fires. They also said they needed more fire suppression personnel overall.

Warning system upgrade needed

Gossner also urged development of a system that could warn of conditions likely to produce the most extreme fires.

Right now, there are “red flag” warnings, where fire stations put engines out in the field. Gossner said the system needs to be refined even further—to have a purple or black flag alert—when there are 40 to 60 mph winds. He said that’s about 1% of fires.

Gossner said he’s talking with San Jose State University and the National Weather Service about how those 1% conditions could be better isolated. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is installing weather stations, he noted, but while “there’s a lot of people doing a lot of work, I don’t know how integrated it is.”

It’s crucial to spot extreme fires early, he said, because it would allow people to be evacuated sooner.

“If we see a fire that’s moving fast, we’re doing evacuations, we’re not waiting,” Gossner said. “I’m going to give my community every chance I can to get out of there, ‘cause there’s no way you’re going to stop it. You’ve got to get people out of the way and then put the fire out as it comes through.”

Those who deal with fires also talked about the need to work more closely with cellphone companies on backup communications systems. In many of the recent fires, people have been unable to communicate when cellphone coverage dropped.

Telecommunications “is one area that is in many ways a weak link” that affects both the government’s ability to communicate with the public in an emergency and the ability of emergency response officials to communicate with each other, said Mark Ghilarducci, director of Newsom’s Office of Emergency Services.

“That entire system is not owned or controlled by the government,” he said. “It is owned and controlled by the private sector.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news

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