Strengthening Support for Federal Wildland Firefighter Health and Wellbeing

A firefighter works on a prescribed fire. Holding a drip torch, he walks away from the camera through knee-deep grass. Flames glow in small patches around him. In a hazy sky, a red sun lowers toward the trees on the horizon.

A South Florida Fire and Aviation firefighter works on a prescribed fire. Holding a drip torch, the firefighter walks away from the camera through knee-deep grass. Flames glow in small patches around him. In a hazy sky, a red sun lowers toward the trees on the horizon. Photo by M. Gue, NPS.


Wildland firefighters find themselves confronting fire years that are longer and more destructive than ever before. As they strive to protect lives, communities, and cherished landscapes, they also experience firsthand the impacts these incidents have on the American people.

Their jobs are physically and mentally demanding. The environment where they work is full of hazards. They spend extended time away from friends and family. The job can be socially isolating and cause difficulties in marriages, parenting, friendships, and in relationships with other family members.  

All these factors contribute to significantly higher risk of mental, behavioral, and physical health challenges.

The Interior Department and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service are committed to taking care of our employees. As we begin Mental Health Awareness Month, we are sharing details about development of the Federal Wildland Firefighter Health and Wellbeing Program.

Last April, both departments convened a wide range of wildland fire personnel and mental health experts for a planning summit to spearhead the development of expanded behavioral health services. Based on input from the summit, the Interior and Agriculture departments are taking a more holistic approach and have developed the Federal Wildland Firefighter Health and Wellbeing Program. This comprehensive program focuses on three key aspects of health: behavioral health, environmental and occupational health, and physical health and readiness.

Behavioral Health

Behavioral health includes not only mental health but also behaviors that affect a person’s overall wellbeing and ability to function well at work and in their personal life. Behaviors such as substance use and isolation can affect overall health.  

The behavioral health program will offer expanded prevention, education, and other services to augment support to wildland firefighters year-round. These resources are aimed at addressing trauma and cumulative stress, building coping skills, bolstering resiliency, improving mental preparedness, and addressing the importance of self-care.

Environmental and Occupational Health

The departments will work to understand how exposure to hazards in the workplace affects the health of wildland fire personnel. In the wildland fire environment, this includes occupational hazards such as exposure to smoke, dust, and ash; injury from falling debris; noise exposure; and injuries from strenuous exertion.

The program will focus on understanding and preventing exposures and hazards in the wildland fire environment that have the potential to affect short- and long-term health.

Physical Health and Readiness

Maintaining good physical health ensures that wildland firefighters are physically prepared for the fire year so they can perform their jobs safely. This includes physical fitness, endurance, medical qualification, proper nutrition, training, and immune function.

This aspect of the program will address physical fitness and nutritional needs through training, studying fatigue management, and exploring how to balance physical and mental health so firefighters can meet the demands of their jobs.

Looking at firefighter health through these three lenses will help us understand how each one affects short- and long-term employee mental and physical health and how to manage those impacts more effectively.

What to Expect This Year

Our goals for the program’s continued development and implementation in 2024 are to:

  1. Expand resources and services to meet the unique health needs of wildland firefighters;
  2. Develop new methods to collect data, quantify environmental and occupational hazards, and evaluate and identify additional mitigation measures;
  3. Increase physical health and readiness training;
  4. Assess fatigue management; and
  5. Establish ways to engage on these topics with the wildland fire community.

Evaluating the Program

The Federal Wildland Firefighter Health and Wellbeing Program will be anchored in evidence- and science-based approaches. We will evaluate how effective the program is, how well it is meeting the wildland fire community’s needs, and then adapt as needed.

The lessons we learn as we implement this joint program will also help us understand broader agency needs for similar services for other professions.

Facing the Future Together

We know this program has been a long time coming. We remain committed to improving the health and wellbeing of our wildland firefighters as they continue to defend communities, protect natural and cultural resources, and serve the American people.

For more information and resources, visit the Federal Wildland Firefighter Health and Wellbeing website.

Health and Wellbeing Webinar Series

The Interior and Agriculture departments this year are holding a series of webinars to provide wildland fire personnel with resources and tips to improve their health and wellbeing before, during, and after wildland fire assignments.

Before the wildfire year kicks into high gear, we invite wildland fire personnel with the Interior and Agriculture departments to join us for “Showing Up at Your Best: Preparing and Transitioning into the Fire Season.”

When: May 16 at noon eastern

Where: Zoom

Evan Burks is a public affairs specialist with the USDA Forest Service in the Fire and Aviation Management division.

Erin McDuff is the acting supervisory public affairs specialist with Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire.