A Quiet Rise in Wildland-Firefighter Suicides
America’s firefighting community is grappling with a troubling trend amid brutal fire seasons.
Nelda St. Clair keeps an unofficial list: 22 last year, 30 the year before. Sixteen suicides among wildland firefighters this year already, although St. Clair points out there tends to be a spike after fire season, which has dragged on long this year. “Suicide rates have become astronomical,” she says. “And those are just the ones we know of.”
Over the past decade, there’s been a quiet acknowledgement within America’s firefighting community that suicide is widespread, and that there are still probably many cases that haven’t been reported. As the numbers grow, so too does the concern that the tough, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps wildland firefighters—the men and women who fight fires in vegetation instead of buildings—are at risk. That’s why St. Clair, a manager for the Bureau of Land Management wildland-fire department’s Critical Incident Stress-Management Program, is keeping track. She believes that quantifying the problem can help people talk about its causes.
In addition to its length, this brutal fire season is already the most expensive on record. The Tubbs fire that ripped through Sonoma County in October was the most destructive in California’s history, and almost 9 million acres have burned across the country, nearly a third more than the 10-year U.S. average. According to the U.S. Forest Service, at the peak of fire there were three times more uncontained large fires than average, and almost three times as many people working them.
As those fires become longer, and more widespread, pulling in firefighters around the clock and exhausting resources, firefighters I spoke to for this article said that coolheadedness is considered part of their job—even when they’re working constantly and sleeping wherever they end up. According to Lisa Johnson, a counselor at the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, they face the trauma of physical destruction, and survivor’s guilt when someone, sometimes one of their crew, dies. She says things can be even harder when fire season ends and they lose a team, a paycheck, and the purposeful adrenaline rush of being on the line. Reentering family life can be deceptively stressful, especially in isolated rural areas.
A lot of those risks are specific to the seasonal, physical nature of the job, so the best coping mechanisms to address behavioral health and to concretely study suicide risk have come from inside the wildland-firefighting community—which spans five government agencies, a collection of state and local groups, and a range of jobs, from fire crews made up of convicts to an elite group known as “smoke jumpers,” the few hundred firefighters who parachute in to fires.
It’s hard to quantify both completed and attempted suicide rates in populations that aren’t prone to talk about mental health, but both factors are known to be high among “structure” firefighters—those who fight fires in buildings—and members of the military who face similar traumatic, high-stress situations as wildland firefighters. Jeff Dill, a captain at a fire station in Inverness, Illinois, and the founder of the Firefighter Behavioral-Health Alliance, which tracks firefighter suicides, says firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. In a 2015 study on suicide risk in firefighters, half of those who responded reported that they’d contemplated suicide.*
Those concepts align with the wildland reports: St. Clair says they’ve lost five smoke jumpers to suicide in the last seven years, and had two in-the-line-of-duty deaths in the same period. But while structure and wildland firefighters are similar, the groups aren’t perfect analogs, which is why it’s particularly hard to address some of the most insidious risks for wildland firefighters. Urban firefighters, and people who fight structure fires, will usually have year-round work, health insurance, and mandatory trauma training. Their support system is fundamentally different.
Johnson says wildland firefighters are subject to high stress and the kind of teamwork that links you tightly to a group of people then disappears. They tend to be risk takers. They’re often veterans, another population prone to suicide. They often lack consistent health care. You can’t step out for an hour to go to therapy when you’re fighting fire, and even if you wanted to, and could fight through social pressure against doing so, there might not be an appropriate person to talk to in, say, Galena, Alaska.
To address those risks, there’s a move to understand them better. At the University of Montana, Patty O’Brien, a clinical-psychology Ph.D. candidate who worked as a wildland firefighter for a decade, is studying connections between behavioral and physical health in wildland firefighters, and trying to identify patterns of risk. There’s been a fair amount of data on the mental-health risks of structure firefighters, which has often led to change in policy and practices, she says. But research on wildland firefighters is rare.
O’Brien’s dissertation is about Type D personalities, which are prone to experiencing and holding back negative emotions, and the health risks associated with that personality type, particularly among wildland firefighters. An anonymous, online study she’s conducting will ask firefighters about mental-health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD, as well as related behaviors including sleep, diet, physical activity, tobacco use, and alcohol use.
She says it will be one of the first studies looking at the interplay of those behaviors across a national cross section of wildland firefighters, and that the results might point to high-risk groups: “People are successful in fire because they’re able to focus and suppress emotions, but the flip side of that is that they’re carrying around a lot of intensity.”
O’Brien’s study is part of a growing push to address suicide from multiple directions. Back in 2001, St. Clair was running the Western Great Basin Coordination Center in Nevada when she started getting requests from fire crews for help talking about suicide. There was no precedent, so she and her team started offering classes about the importance of mental health, and trying to connect crews with counselors who both understood the specific risks associated with wildland firefighting and were located in the remote places those firefighters were based.
“We were operating under the radar. At that time the stigma was just huge,” she says. They realized they couldn’t force people to open up, so they started slowly trying to break down the emotional suppression and stoicism they encountered. Like the idea you shouldn’t ask people how they felt, or that you should, as St. Clair says, “rub some dirt so it doesn’t hurt” on any kind of problem. They needed to do it in a way that fit within the firefighting culture. “One time we had a counselor come out and meet us. He was 350 pounds, packing an oxygen tank, and he was trying to talk to these hot shots about how fitness was good for their mental health. He had no credibility,” St. Clair says.
Their approach spread through word of mouth, and more fire crews, even ones run by historically salty older guys, started asking for training. “We knew we were doing good work, because almost everybody who had an issue would come back the next year,” she says. In 2013, the program became an official part of training for the agencies that fight wildfire, because there was such a demand.
It’s grown to encompass pre-incident education to give people tools for what they might encounter in the field—“You could go to work and you could die, but [training programs fail to] tell people that, so when something happens they’re overwhelmed,” St. Clair says—as well as skills for decompression after the fact. They also give firefighters tools for coping in the off-season, and recognizing suicide risk in teammates. Now, they’re reaching out to mental-health counselors to give people easy access to trauma specialists, even if it’s just over Skype when they’re in the field. At the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, Johnson says they’re raising funds for a suicide hotline staffed by retired firefighters.
“We’re still working on breaking those stereotypes down, but now it’s more acceptable to have a dialogue about the warning signs,” St. Clair says.
This spring, the interagency Wildland Fire Lessons-Learned Center focused one of their quarterly reports entirely on suicide. It included a story from Shawna Legarza, the national director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service, about losing her husband, a fellow firefighter, to suicide; a look at a newly formed task force to address suicide among employees at the National Park Service, one of the agencies that manages fire; and a rundown of biological, social, and environmental risk factors that wildland firefighters are particularly subject to. The goal was to show how embedded and common those risks were.
“Fire is culture, and it’s community, even when that community is rural, isolated men,” St. Clair says. “We’re proud of our culture, most of us wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
That pride presents itself in different ways. In August, smoke jumper Ian Pohowsky died by suicide. At the request of his family, one of his base managers wrote about his death, through the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, in the hopes that it would spur open discussion. It set off a flood of sympathy and stories of similar struggles. But quietly, two days later, a dispatcher whose name wasn’t released publicly did the same.
* This article originally misstated the date and author affiliation of the study on suicidal ideation in firefighters. We regret the error.