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”.
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.
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.