Be the one to ask

A firefighter lights small fires with a drip torch while walking through a burning forest at night

A firefighter fights fire with fire during a burnout operation on the Cascade Complex near Cascade, Idaho.  (Photo by Kari Greer)


It's mid-September, we're at PL 5, and the wildland fire community is humming. Fire activity is up: in some cases, way up. Compared to last year, California has seen over 2,650 more fires and a nearly 2000% increase in the acres burned.

Across the country firefighters are leaning into the challenge of longer seasons and bigger fires. As individuals this shared experience shapes our identity and gives us purpose. Working in fire creates an incredible sense of belonging.

When this collective effort ends, firefighters often experience a sense of isolation and loneliness. These feelings can affect our mental health. In tragic cases, they can lead to suicide.

Discussing mental health should be just as easy as discussing physical health. Every spring crews train together so they can be physically fit for firefighting. Let's dedicate an equal amount of time to making sure we're mentally fit for firefighting.

Check in with your colleagues during and after fire season. If you notice changes in someone's typical behavior - things like less interest in activities, increased used of alcohol or drugs, and talk of isolation or hopelessness - ask if they're okay. Show that you care by giving them the opportunity to share their thoughts without judgement. Research shows that people with thoughts of suicide feel relief when someone asks after them in a caring way.

We can all help prevent suicide. Be the one to ask.

Read more about suicide prevention on the National Wildfire Coordinating Group website and at the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you're in crisis, call 800-273-8255 or text "TALK" to 741741.

Dr. Kaili McCray (PhD, MPH, MHE) manages the Medical Standards Program for the Department of the Interior. He also chairs the National Wildfire Coordinating Group's Emergency Medical Standards Committee, and is an advisor to the Mental Health Subcommittee.