California firefighters have faced five of the ten most destructive fires in state history since the fall of 2017. Early this November two of largest wildfires in California broke out, with 6,400 firefighters combatting the flames. The Camp Fire is the deadliest wildfire in California history with a death toll at 84 by Thanksgiving. At one point, the number of victims reported missing was over 1,000.
First responders are continuously faced with traumatic encounters and, with the eruption of wildfires over the last year, they are facing physical and emotional fatigue like never before. Even though they seem like superheroes without capes, they are still humans whose mental wellness needs attention. Coping with personal life along with the trauma they are faced with continually is a balancing act. Adding tension to this factor are California’s unceasing wildfires.
With most of the fire contained by Thanksgiving, first responders, search and rescue teams and the volunteers supporting both them and the evacuees, were exhausted. Many of them were reeling with the loss of their own homes and loved ones. The Camp Fire is only the most recent in a handful over the past year in California, and many of the same firefighters have been on duty throughout.
Recovery from the previous wildfire in Shasta County over the summer was still underway when Butte County erupted in flames. In August 2018 following this fire, NBC 7 (San Diego)’s Alex Presha reported that six firefighters and equipment operators died in-the-line-of-duty within four weeks. “Firefighters and their families are dealing with stress and emotional pain on a scale never seen before,” Presha said.
Firefighters are among the rare few who are not just physically strong but who can handle a high stress load, performing well under pressure. Yet, being in the literal direct line of fire are the firefighters who choose this career that often gives no time to pay attention to the psychological effects that come with the job. If they don’t address them, the results can be disastrous.
Separated from family and friends for lengths of time, with little sleep and time to process everything happening around them, firefighters often shut down emotions to function. Continual self care and support is a must for these firefighters to really survive the constant emotional, mental and physical fatigue.
When the Smoke Clears
by Elizabeth Joy
Separated from him for 10 hours with no phone connection, evacuee Kate Peace explained how her 16-year-old son barely escaped from Paradise High School after the fire ignited.
She showed pictures of her sister’s beet-red back, with third-degree burns from the flames that chased her, after she had to abandon her car to run from the blazing fire.
Her brothers, mother, sister and daughter all lost their homes, as had she.
Peace bent down to try to find a matching boot to the one she found in the piles of donated items, dumped throughout the Chico Wal-Mart parking lot.
“This keeps my mind busy,” she said, holding back the tears, then made eye contact. “All I want is a shower,” Peace said. The tears came, followed by hugs.
The devastation is endless. Over 52,000 evacuees from the Camp Fire escaped alive, but many had nowhere to go. Survivors, including ones with children, slept in the cold and rain at the Wal-Mart parking lot through Thanksgiving. The threat of possible mudslides from the rainstorm over the holiday intensified the already stressful climate. An outbreak of norovirus hit shelters opening their doors to the displaced. Family and friends of hundreds of the missing fire victims waited to hear if their loved ones were alive or not – and grieved those who didn’t survive. Thousands of homes and structures, and over 150,000 acres burnt to ashes. Bad air quality, with the smoke affecting all the surrounding areas, caused many health problems and closed down schools.
And then there are the firefighters themselves.
“Silence regarding personal problems and the use of poor coping mechanisms (e.g., alcohol) are found all too often within the firefighter culture,” according to the article “Firefighter Suicide: The Need to Examine Cultural Change.” The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation states that firefighters are four times more likely to experience a suicide among their peers each year than a death in the line-of-duty.
Melissa Bell, an LPC fire program alumni and currently a Cal Fire firefighter, explained that there are resources offered by agencies to support firefighters. CISDs (Critical Incident Stress Debriefing) are offered after firefighters are involved in highly traumatic incidents, facilitating small group discussions among those affected.
After running a call with a patient who didn’t make it, Bell sat in on a CISD for the first time and noticed it helped out all the responding crews. These debriefings go hand-in-hand with professional medical and psychological services.
Paradise, by definition, ironically means bliss, nirvana and joy. These words seem like a bad joke to the rescuers and the rescued. Both will be faced with the experiences and memories to cope with. After a traumatic crisis occurs such as this fire, it’s easy and common for “out of sight out of mind” to happen. The collateral damage from one wildfire alone can feel too painful for bystanders to consider.
About 40 active-duty firefighters lost their homes, according to firefighter Steve Morris, whose own home in Magalia was incinerated by the Camp Fire. He had been with Cal Fire for 17 years in Butte County, was promoted two years ago and commutes to the Moss Beach station. Morris was at his home with his wife, Jennifer, and two-year-old daughter, Kresley, the morning of the fire in Paradise. He evacuated them, grabbing some personal belongings, and an hour later, their home was gone.
Initially after the fire, Kresley kept asking, “Go home now?” This was hard for his wife to hear. So Morris explained, “No we can’t go home. It’s all burnt up.”
Now when Kresley says it, Morris will say, “No, we can’t go home,” and she will finish his sentence. “It’s all burnt up.” He’s grateful she is young enough to adapt, unlike older children who were separated from friends in school. Despite all the damage, Morris is in a place of appreciation with so much support and love, thankful that his wife, daughter and two dogs got out alive. His heart goes out to the evacuees who have had so much loss and little provisions. “We’re far better off than the evacuees who lost everything,” Morris said.
The main thing Morris would tell cadets choosing the fire industry as a career is, “Every call you go out on, you are helping someone who could be having the worst problem in their life.” He encourages cadets to always walk in another’s shoes, treating them with empathy.
Once the immediate tragedy is over, it’s important for society to fight off complacency, returning to life as usual. The lives of all the individuals involved will not go back to normal once the dust settles and the news reporters go home. The holidays and bad weather add fuel to this emotional fire.
“There’s nothing left, nothing,” Peace said, as she rummaged through donations. Then her countenance changed. “People were just burning in their cars.”
The emotional detachment from her words made it clear that the healing journey for those recovering from such trauma requires time and a community of supporters. Californians should be making a mental note that the needs for those recovering aren’t just physical and material. Deeper issues will demand attention for the well-being of everyone involved in the fires, firefighters and victims alike.
IN THE LINE OF FIRE
by Elizabeth Joy
The intensity of the blazing fire’s 150-foot flame lines left Melissa Bell wide-eyed for a second, but she immediately refocused on the two first-year firefighters she was overseeing as a senior leader.
Numerous spot fires lit up everywhere “in the green” (areas not yet burned), bleeding together in an instant with the high winds, igniting the wild land. Engines lined up along the tree lines in front of the structures to fight off the flames. A Cal Fire helicopter came flying overhead, dousing the fires with a water drop.
Bell’s engine operator honked twice, signaling it was time to go. Time to get back to the road. Communication is of utmost importance on any fire call since supervisors must keep everyone safe. But wildfires do pose a specific danger, with nature’s elements, compared to structural fires.
Bell’s Cal Fire unit moved its engine to “in the black” (areas already burned) for safety, transitioning from wild land to structure protection, working fearlessly to save a home that was vulnerable.
Of all the larger wildfires Bell has been assigned to, which include the Butte, Loma and Thomas fires, the Ranch was the most intense fire she’d seen in her four years with Cal Fire. Up to that point it was known as the largest in California history, killing one firefighter and injuring three others.
Bell, however, was fully prepared. Her readiness wasn’t just her six years immersed in the LPC fire program, her seven years as a Livermore Pleasanton Reserve firefighter or her four years with Cal Fire. Though Bell’s resume sizzles, it was grit and focus that fueled her to hurdle over obstacles and setbacks when she struggled to pass specific skills. That, and the support of her instructors and leaders, encouraged her to meet the high standards necessary to be a firefighter.
When Bell felt unsure about these setbacks, she turned to her instructor Ron Johansen, who she calls her fire dad. “He would tell me, ‘Don’t get upset. Don’t cry. Just keep going,’” Bell said. “He helped me believe in myself.”
The latest wildfire she was assigned to was the Woolsey Fire in Southern California, where she did overhead work.
“With these wildfires you have no idea when you’re coming home,” she explained. “Especially when they first ignite. It’s not just about battling the immensity of the fire in full force. It’s also the mop up. The ‘in the black’ can still have kindle, so we have to make sure it’s all out.”
Her captain once worked 60 days straight. The crisis determines how long a shift can be and also how long it will be before seeing loved ones again. And then there is the fact that some never do.
The life-threatening danger that a firefighter encounters is both color and gender blind. The standards are the same for everyone. Bell being a female firefighter, which makes up only seven percent of the industry, is therefore of no consequence. Citizens and colleagues just want someone who can get the job done.
Oakland Fire Captain George Freelen, both an alumni and instructor of LPC, said, “You’re either a worker or you’re not. You have to earn that stripe. We don’t give it out.”
Graduating from LPC’s fire program in 2009 and having worked at Cal Santa Clara Unit for the last four seasons, Bell has earned her stripe. And it definitely was not just handed to her. Throughout her years at LPC in the fire program, she struggled to pass certain requirements. When it came to some skills, such as ladders, she had to up her ante with her physical training to be capable of doing the job. When she struggled to pass written tests, she asked around and got others’ study techniques to help her. She didn’t give up. She set her personal standards higher and met them.
Bell understands that being a firefighter comes with a price one has to be willing to pay. It’s not an easy career path to choose, and it’s not for the weak of heart.
Becoming a firefighter is no joke. Remaining one isn’t either. But even so, for as challenging a job as being a first responder may be, it is also hugely rewarding. Addressing those up-and-coming in the fire industry, Joanne Hayes-White, San Francisco’s fire chief, said, “Serving one’s community fills one with a great sense of pride and responsibility.”
Being a part of the solution is what makes being a firefighter the only career for Bell. Remaining in the game can be exacting, as it influences every aspect of a firefighter’s life. Bell exemplifies what it takes to be among California’s firefighters, fusing her grit with the wisdom passed down from her mentors. It is a journey that started right here at LPC.