Firefighting is one of the most physically and psychologically demanding professions. Wildland firefighters are a special breed. Whereas structure firefighters focus on fire suppression in communities and protecting property such as homes and vehicles, wildland firefighters traditionally fight fire in the forests, fields, and grasslands [United States Forest Service(USFS), 2018]. Firefighters working in cities can go home after shift. Wildland firefighters remain in the wilds, isolated from their families, limited to infrequent phone calls when cell coverage is available, for weeks, even months until the job is done.
A wildland firefighter opines: “Metropolitan firefighters have finesse—they are the show horses, shiny and polished. Wildland firefighters are the down and dirty workhorses.”
The physical demands on wildland firefighters are brutal. Fighting fires in remote areas requires hiking over treacherous geography for long distances before getting to the flames. Temperatures can reach into the 100s. Fire protection suiting protects firefighters from flames but can become stifling. With a fire shelter and gear, a backpack can easily weigh 50 pounds. The risks of these factors can be dehydration, heat exhaustion, even death (Aisbett et al., 2012).
As communities expand into the natural environment, so does wildfire. Both city and wildland firefighters put life safety first, but wildland firefighters now have the onus of saving people in the growing wildland-urban interface. Accessibility in these areas can be difficult making saving lives extremely challenging and dangerous. The enhanced risks to wildland firefighters and consequences of failure have expanded along with the physical and psychological stress they experience (Groot et al., 2019).
The firefighter and wildland fire are in a dance. Two strong personalities in a life or death duel, each battling for control.
Wildland fire behaves like a living thing with moods, hungers, and motivations. On a cool, breezeless day with minimal fuel load in gentle topography by the side of a road, a fire might be fairly docile and amenable to being corralled with a couple of tanks full of water.
But then there are increasingly common superfires, as seen in the past few years largely in the American West. The combination of high heat and unstable air rushing over steep mountain slopes and river valleys leads to enraged and explosive fires. For example, the Carr Fire firenado in Shasta County California in July 2018 detonated into a 42,000-foot, 142-mph, 2700 degree, 1000-foot-wide behemoth that decimated every natural and man-made creation in its path. Imagine a gigantic two-year-old having a screaming temper tantrum, throwing around building structures, crushing electric towers, and scouring the earth with its rage.
A few months later, in November 2018, the Camp Fire descended on the town of Paradise California. Fifty-mph winds drove the fire to swallow football field lengths in seconds. Firefighters abandoned all attempts to save property and made heroic efforts to save lives. Even with their superhero actions, the fire incinerated not only the entire town but dozens of its citizens trapped in their homes or cars as they desperately tried to escape. The intensity of the fire was compared to the firebombing of Hamburg, Germany during WWII. It destroyed power lines, water mains, and the infrastructure and left the entire town uninhabitable. (Wooley, Powell, & Loew, 2019).
Firefighters had never faced anything like these fires. Many described sheer terror they had never experienced before.
A wildland firefighter explains, “In general, the rules of wildland firefighting are simple: put the wet stuff on the red stuff and make a brown stripe between the black and the green. It works that way until it doesn’t and then you try something else. Offense, defense, re-engage and start all over. It’s not a sprint like a structure fire, it’s a marathon, and some days all you can do is retreat.”
Wildland firefighters must constantly adapt to the fire environment. All the models in the world cannot predict fire behavior with 100% accuracy because no fire is like another and not being prepared for surprises gets you in trouble. But that is what wildland firefighters appreciate about fire—it is unpredictable.
What kind of person would be attracted to fight wildfire for a living?
Someone active, who likes to be outdoors and is not afraid of physical challenge and brutal work hours. Someone who is willing to live in dirt and smoke and heat for weeks at a time. Someone who can carry a 60-pound pack up steep mountainous terrain in a matter of minutes. Someone who can go without food or sleep for 56-hours during an initial attack. Someone who can survive a fire burning over their engine and keep going. Someone who will risk their life to pull people from burning houses as a fire tornado races hot on their heels.
A risk-taker, optimistic enough to think they can beat impossible odds in order to protect people and property through skill and determination. Someone who would get a tattoo of orange flames rising up their calves just to remind them where they really want to be on their days off.
Leave the fire and then the real challenges begin: Homelife.
A CalFire Captain: “During your shift, you live at the fire house waiting to be called out on a fire. There are rules that you know and follow. It’s part of the job. You plan the meals. You cook and clean. You take care of your gear. You know when to relax and when to sleep. You know when you hear the tones go off you respond no matter what time it is, even in the middle of the night. You are constantly ready to go.
“At work, I’m the boss. I earn my crew’s respect. They listen to what I tell them. I can count on them to follow my lead. At home, I have to share. It’s my wife’s firehouse and at best I’m a co-supervisor. During fire season, your spouse and kids have learned to live without you. They go to school or work, the kids’ sports, the movies, shopping, whatever, whenever they want. Coming home after weeks on a fire is like coming home to strangers. You walk in and throw a monkey wrench into their schedule. And you can’t do an inspection on your kids’ messy rooms like you can do with your crew. They don’t appreciate your authority like your crew does. Sometimes you think you don’t live there.”
When wildfires are raging, wildland firefighters spend days or weeks or months in their engines chasing fire. Not infrequently, they fight fires in their own home territory, where their own families and homes are threatened. But they cannot leave the crew and go home to help evacuate. They stay on the job while their families gather their belonging and flee. At times they do not find out that their own home have been destroyed until their shift is over.
Spouses of firefighters may complain that, even when they come home, the wildland firefighter is not present mentally or emotionally. They are absent-minded, distractible, preoccupied, or moody. Tensions rise and the family may resent the firefighter trying to exert some control over the family.
A firefighter explains, “When you’re gone for two months at a time, you learn to shut off emotions. They can be dealt with later. When you get home, you’re exhausted physically and psychologically. You don’t feel like talking. You tell yourself that you’re protecting your family by not sharing all you’ve seen but, in reality, you’re too tired to care.”
Extreme working hours with no opportunity to relax and recharge can lead not only to physical and emotional fatigue, but significant health problems, addictive behaviors, and increased mortality. Nonetheless, firefighters tend to keep a “game face” because showing weakness is unacceptable.
A wife explains: “After the 2018 fires, he changed. I was afraid he was suicidal and I couldn’t leave him alone. If he went outside I’d go looking for him. I felt so alone and I didn’t know how to help him.”
Children may also be affected by parental absences and parents who are emotionally unavailable when at home. They may feel abandoned and fear for the firefighter parent’s safety when they are working. They are more in tune to social media than many parents imagine and are excellent at reading parents’ mood. One mother said: “He cries and has tantrums when his father is away. When his father comes home he is either clingy or avoids him for a day or so. Sometimes he even becomes aggressive with his father.”
How to help wildland firefighters
During fire season, wildland firefighters cannot often get away for a therapy session. The recent popularity of telehealth sessions can be helpful in accessing services. In recent years, CalFire has brought mental health professionals into fire camps to provide immediate stress reduction and crisis management.
In addition, peer support is invaluable and interested firefighters are encouraged to seek out proper training to be able to provide peer support when necessary. With younger firefighters, social media has decreased the stigma of asking for help.
Families can benefit from employee assistance programs and interactions with other families. CalFire has instituted seminars for spouses to deal with everything from coping with a spouse suffering from a post-traumatic stress injury to negotiating the maze of medical or death benefits.
Community support is essential. During the Carr Fire, one wildland firefighter said, “A ‘thank you’ sign on a fence post has more impact than anything.”
Wildland firefighters face increasing physical, psychological, and social pressures as wildfires become more dominant and ferocious in many areas. During the fire season, they are isolated from family and support systems. Traditional forms of treatment do not fill the need and creativity is necessary to offer them and their families crisis management, family support, and accessibility.
Aisbett, B., Wolkow, A., Sprajcer, M., & Ferguson, S. A. (2012). “Awake, smoky, and hot”: Providing an evidence-base for managing the risks associated with occupational stressors encountered by wildland firefighters. Applied Ergonomics, 43(5), 916-925. doi:10.1016/j.apergo.2011.12.013
Groot, E., Caturay, A., Khan, Y., & Copes, R. (2019). A systematic review of the health impacts of occupational exposure to wildland fires. International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health, 32(2), 121-140. doi:10.13075/ijomeh.1896.01326
U.S. Forest Service. United States Department of Agriculture. (2018). Careers in Wildland Fire. https://www.fs.usda.gov/working-with-us/jobs/fire
Wooley, M., Powell, S., & Loew, M. (2019). How to survive a firestorm and empower more resilient wildland firefighters. Crisis, Stress, and Human Resilience, 1(3).
Marilyn J. Wooley, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist specializing in treatment and crisis intervention for law enforcement, firefighters, communications dispatchers, and emergency medical personnel. She has volunteered as a lead clinician for the West Coast Posttrauma Retreat/First Responders Support Network since 2001. Wooley lives in Northern California and survived the Carr Fire Tornado. She is working on a manuscript about post-traumatic growth in first responders.