Reports Show Wildland Firefighters May Struggle in Secret Once the Season Ends

Research suggests there are heightened mental health risks for nature's first responders. What can we do to help?

Editor’s note: This article discusses the topic of suicide. If you or someone you love is experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help by calling the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Shawna Legarza had been fighting fires since she was 18 years old. She met many friends and even her husband in the fire service and in 2016, she became the national fire and aviation director of the U.S. Forest Service.

But on her way to this senior role, she was hit by a personal tragedy: Her husband, a highly respected wildland firefighter, died by suicide in 2008. After that, everything changed.

Back in 2008, Lagarza says no one knew how to react to firefighter suicides. She wondered what to say to people, and what people would say to her. She wondered how she had missed the signs. She wondered if she should go back to work at all. Eventually, she returned to school to get her Ph.D. in psychology, to try to understand suicide better. Now she runs fire programs for the U.S. Forest Service, with a special emphasis on firefighter education.

Firefighters begin a controlled burn in the field

Shawna Legarza directs where to start a controlled burn in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains in 2002. Fourteen years later, Legarza was named national fire and aviation director for the U.S. Forest Service. (Photo Courtesy: Shawna Legarza)

Unfortunately, Lagarza’s work—and her story—are needed now more than ever before.

Death by suicide in the wildland firefighting community

There’s no denying that there is a problem when it comes to suicide: Wildland firefighters are dying by suicide at startling rates each year, far more often than people in the general population. This is a fact that has been known within the fire community for years, often whispered and mourned, but not spoken about directly until recently, Legarza says.

Part of the reason for the silence—and lack of information—around death by suicide comes from an issue with reporting. Jeff Dill, the founder of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FFBHA), says that many firefighters experience mental health struggles after they’ve gone fully off-duty for the season, which means their deaths often go unreported within agencies like the National Park Service (NPS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and U.S. Forest Service (USFS). 

Dill has been collecting data about firefighter suicides through the FFBHA since 2014. Though this data is reliant upon self-reports from families, he anticipates he’ll hear about more than 100 firefighter suicides in 2019 alone. Last year, 87 firefighters died by suicide, a number that outpaced lives lost while fighting wildfires in 2017, according to an FFBHA suicide report

To better understand the issue, firefighting organizations and academic researchers are finding new ways to collect data. In 2018, a Florida State University professor and clinical psychologist who studies military suicides released a study that ruffled some feathers when it showed that wildland firefighters, in particular, were more likely to report clinically significant suicide symptoms than non-wildland firefighters. In the study, 55% of wildland firefighters reported experiencing thoughts about death by suicide, compared to 32% of non-wildland firefighters. Both of these percentages are staggering compared to NIH suicide data on the general population, which shows that 20% of people, on average, experience some suicidal thoughts. 

What makes wildland firefighting so risky?

The 2018 study found that one reason for heightened suicide risks in the wildland firefighting community was the struggle to maintain a “normal” family life during the fire season, which the researchers named “thwarted belongingness.” Firefighting season stretches from spring to fall; once the season picks up, firefighters must be ready to leave at a moment’s notice, which can mean missing family celebrations and holidays. Their work days can last up to 16 hours, for up to 14 consecutive days. And in the backcountry, firefighters may be unable to respond to calls and texts. All this can take a toll on a person’s ability to connect with family and friends.

“You’re away from home a lot, so you miss sons’ and daughters’ birthdays, and parents’ birthdays,” Legarza says. “I think that can take a toll on people. They can’t get that time back. If you’re a seasonal employee, being away from home is very challenging.”

The San Juan hotshot crew, after constructing saw line for a prescribed fire in San Juan National Forest in 2007. During the height of firefighting season, work days can last up to 16 hours, for up to 14 consecutive days. (Photo Courtesy: Shawna Legarza)

It’s not uncommon for wildland firefighters to feel particularly depressed once the season wraps up and they return to the life they’ve left behind, according to the findings from 2018. Fighting fires with a team can be an incredibly intense bonding experience and, not unlike military service, members can find themselves feeling lonely and isolated without their teams during the winter season, when their hectic schedule and constant togetherness comes to an end.

“Programs enhancing social connectedness within the fire service, particularly among wildland firefighters, might be one avenue for suicide prevention among firefighters,” the 2018 study authors wrote, noting that sometimes building a “fire family” can provide much-needed social support during the off-season.

Not to mention that wildland firefighting is hard physical work and full of adrenaline.

“You are responsible for people’s lives on the fire line,” says Jessica Gardetto, an external affairs chief for the BLM and former firefighter. “It’s inherently stressful work. You’re juggling lots of tasks at once, working long days, always on point, and that’s physically and mentally draining. If you’re prone to mental health issues—which is human—that kind of stress can compound existing issues and create them itself.”

“The physical endurance that you have to have to fight those fires, and then relax and then go back into it, means that there’s a lot of adrenaline, and wear and tear on the body,” Dill says.

Firefighters, like other emergency personnel, are also often exposed to traumatic events on a daily basis: injuries, rescues, watching homes and forests destroyed, and even death. 

“You may see something that you can’t forget,” Legarza says. “And it’ll impact your mind after the fact.”

Dill says dealing with this kind of trauma often means treating it with nonchalance, making jokes, or even ignoring the emotional tenor of the scenario. But uncomfortable emotions can creep up later, especially once the adrenaline wears off. And talking about difficult emotions and scenes with non-firefighters after the end of the season can feel like a big risk, as many individuals are unlikely to be able to fully understand what the wildland firefighter has experienced.

Combatting suicide risks in the future

One of the most important intervention points for wildland firefighters appears to happen at the beginning of the fire season. While training once focused mainly on physical fitness, recently the BLM adjusted its early season training to teach firefighters to maintain their mental fitness, too. The USFS has also implemented a similar education program for preseason training.

Bodie Ronk runs these education programs as the occupational health, safety and critical incident stress program manager for the BLM. He offers a preseason primer on what firefighters can expect if they encounter trauma, including what a typical response looks like, and what to do if the effects of trauma linger longer than a few weeks. 

Interventions also happen at the end of the season, which Legarza says is a new development instigated by the 2018 findings. “Back in the day, we’d say if you���re seasonal, ‘Bye. See you later!’ You spend your summer hiking, camping, and fighting fires. You sleep outside and have no showers. And then you come back to civilization and you think ‘Wow, what do I wear?’ I remember thinking, ‘How do I transition?’”

A firefighter points things out as she gives a safety officer briefing

Legarza gives a safety officer briefing in 2002. Now, she runs fire programs for the U.S. Forest Service with a focus on suicide prevention. (Photo Courtesy: Shawna Legarza)

Now there are many more resources for how firefighters can take care of themselves during the off-season, as well as permanent options that allow them to stay employed year-round.

FFBHA also offers private workshops and education about transitioning from the fire season back into everyday life. Still, Gardetto says the biggest challenge is that stigma persists around asking for help in an environment where you’re supposed to be one saving others, not the one who needs saving.

“I think people in general, not just firefighters, have a hard time asking for help,” Legarza says. “We don’t think of ourselves as heroes, but this is also a cool job and you want to be seen as strong all the time. That’s the stigma we’re trying to work on—to help people see when they need [to take] a mental health day.”

Ronk agrees. “Humans perceive mental health issues as a weakness, so a lot of people find it difficult to discuss this stuff with colleagues, and even with friends and family,” he says. At the same time, the tight-knit nature of the fire community means that peers notice changes in their friends and may report them to their supervisors. That reporting happens more often than it did five years ago, which he sees as a win.

If you or someone you love is experiencing suicidal thoughts, consider reaching out in the following ways:

  • If you’re a seasonal wildland firefighter, reach out to your immediate supervisor—even if the season is over.
  • Focused on health and safety, the National Volunteer Fire Council supports volunteer firefighters, EMTs and rescue personnel. Contact their suicide help line at 1-888-731-FIRE.
  • The Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers confidential support for people in distress, as well as prevention and crisis resources for loved ones and best practices for professionals. To reach them, call 1-800-273-8255.
  • The Crisis Text Line offers free, 24/7 support to anyone, in any type of crisis; text 741741.

You can also read more about wildland firefighter suicide risks and solutions in this 2017 National Interagency Fire Center report, called Two More Chains.