Aravaipa Veterans Interagency Hotshot Crew member contemplates a partially burned forest during the 2021 Caldor Fire. Photo by Joe Bradshaw, BLM.
BY MICHAEL CAMPBELL AND ERIN MCDUFF
Wildland firefighters work in arduous, stressful environments. Like most emergency responders, they are expected to be calm and level-headed in the face of challenging, dangerous situations. But many have encountered the harmful expectation that firefighters should be able to control stress and painful emotions at all times. In response, firefighters often suppress their feelings.
This can lead to devastating consequences for mental health, from anxiety to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to suicidal thoughts. This impact is substantiated by research. While millions of Americans experience a wide variety of mental health challenges, studies indicate firefighters and other emergency responders have an elevated risk.
While the wildland fire community in the U.S. and around the globe has made tremendous strides in recent years to destigmatize mental health concerns for wildland firefighters and provide support, more work is still needed. This includes within the federal wildland firefighters that work to protect America’s public lands.
The Interior and Agriculture departments are taking steps to address this critical need. Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire, in concert with the USDA Forest Service, has begun work to establish a program to recognize and address mental health needs for permanent, temporary, seasonal, and year-round wildland firefighters. The program is being developed following guidance in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
The joint initiative, led by the Office of Wildland Fire and the Interior Department bureaus with wildland fire programs—the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service—will create a bridge between existing mental health programs, establish year-round prevention and mental health training for wildland firefighters, provide PTSD care, enhance critical incident stress management capacity, and create a new system of trauma support services with an emphasis on early intervention.
“As wildfires have become more frequent and devastating in the past decade, the need to recognize the mental health impacts for our firefighters and support personnel has never been greater,” said Jeff Rupert, Director of the Office of Wildland Fire. “Every one of our employees should be fully supported in seeking mental health care, and this program will provide resources tailored to their needs.”
The program will be developed specifically to address the unique experiences and mental health challenges of those who work in wildland fire. It will work in tandem with broader health and safety programs that address occupational hazards.
“Mental health cannot be addressed exclusively without considering other priority aspects of health and wellbeing affecting firefighters,” explained Kaili McCray with Interior’s Wildland Firefighter Medical Standards, Safety, and Health.
The Office of Wildland Fire will work hand-in-hand with the USDA Forest Service and other emergency responder groups to explore existing wildland firefighting mental health resources. Throughout the peak of the 2022 wildfire season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) will conduct a study of fire personnel wellbeing and occupational risk factors to inform the development of the program. Firefighter needs and key program elements will then be determined at an interagency strategic planning meeting in the spring. The program will be developed and funded to support federal wildland firefighters in the 2023 fire season and beyond.
By connecting existing mental health programs and filling the gaps to address the full spectrum of wildland firefighter health and wellbeing needs, the Office of Wildland Fire will increase access to resources that create resiliency, improve mental preparedness, recognize the importance of self-care, and address the effects from cumulative stress.
“This initiative underscores the importance of highlighting mental health issues and bringing them out of the dark,” said McCray.
The effort comes as federal wildland firefighters have been fighting significant fires from New Mexico to Alaska while also preparing for an active 2022 fire year during the peak summer months. The Interior Department is thankful for the ongoing efforts of our wildland firefighters to protect lives, communities, and lands.
For anyone seeking immediate mental health support, resources are available right now to wildland firefighters through a variety of sources:
The Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7 free, confidential support for people who are in distress or experiencing suicidal thoughts. You don’t have to be experiencing a crisis to call . You can also reach out for resources and advice to help someone else. Simply call or text 988.
If you or someone else is at immediate risk of harming yourself or another person, call 911.
Michael Campbell, currently serving on a detail as a public affairs specialist with Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire, works in communications for the Bureau of Land Management’s Oregon/Washington state office.
Erin McDuff is a public affairs specialist with Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire.