Overworked and exhausted, California’s firefighters face a mental health crisis


By Violet Gabales

Climate change has led to drought, hotter summers and longer fire seasons in California. The wildfires have only grown more intense and widespread as the state heats up. To make matters worse, wildland firefighters are short-staffed and overworked– leaving them exhausted and traumatized.

Julie Cart investigates Cal Fire’s mental health crisis in a four-part series for Cal Matters. Cart shares the stories of two firefighters, Ryan Mitchell, a brave 35-year-old firefighter from San Diego, and Noelle Bahnmiller, a former wildland firefighter who went on to become a counselor for Cal Fire’s behavioral health program. Mitchell and Bahnmiller were fire captains working for Cal Fire when they endured their most traumatic experiences, isolating themselves and (as they put it) “suffering in silence”.

California’s wildfire statistics read like the losing side of an arms race: 2020 was the state’s worst fire season on record, with more than 8,600 blazes taking 33 lives and burning 4% of the state

There aren’t enough wildland firefighters to cover all of the fires in California. Those that are available are forced to work overtime and face long deployment and sleep deprivation. These conditions have led to serious mental health issues among firefighters– including persistent anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance abuse, thoughts of suicide and even suicide attempts.

Many fire station leaders around the state told CalMatters they see an unaddressed epidemic of PTSD and suicidal thoughts among their crews. Yet Cal Fire does not collect any data on suicide or PTSD within its ranks.

More action must be taken to address the mental health needs of firefighters. By providing more mental health resources for firefighters and collecting data on the effects of their experiences, Cal Fire can address crews’ needs and strategize ways to cope with trauma. Additionally, normalizing mental health among firefighters and emphasizing that mental illness does not diminish the courage they’ve shown or the accomplishments they’ve made can create a more welcoming environment for struggling firefighters to seek help. When talking about the agency’s culture, a former chief says, “If you need help you are weak, and if you are weak I don’t want you around me. It’s like you are contagious.”

Read the CalMatters four-part series on Cal Fire’s mental health crisis here.


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