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Wildfires aren't firefighters' only hazard – 6 share the toll the job takes on them

by Amanda Monthei, Washington Post |

Climate change, forest mismanagement and other issues have collided to create wildfires that are increasingly destructive to communities and livelihoods across the American West.

Although the wildfire conversation is complex and nuanced, there is widespread agreement that the people fighting the fires should be taken care of, fairly compensated, and have access to resources if they are injured on the job or dealing with the mental and physical strains that are common across this workforce. But this has not always been the case, even as firefighters are expected to work longer seasons on some of the largest and most intense blazes in recent history.

Firefighters have stories that are often overshadowed by the fires they work on, but their struggles have undoubtedly garnered more attention over the past two years, particularly as fire seasons grow in length and severity, and as more firefighters leave the profession and advocate for those who continue to stick it out.

This attention has resulted in legislation to compensate wildland firefighters. The $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, which President Biden signed into law last November, contained increases in pay for all federal wildland firefighters, and a greater capacity for some to move into permanent positions. Wildland firefighters began to receive the pay increases in June, but other issues remain.

Many of these problems are addressed in the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act, which has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry. Provisions in the measure, which is named after a smokejumper who died on a wildfire in New Mexico in 2021, would provide greater support for the wildland fire community through more access to mental health resources, support for job-related diseases, and restructuring to a portal-to-portal system of pay, which would ensure that federal firefighters are paid for any time spent away from home while working on wildfires. The legislation includes many other provisions and is a robust attempt at improving treatment, pay and benefits for this overworked, underpaid and often underappreciated workforce.

As issues facing wildland firefighters receive more national attention through news coverage and legislation, The Washington Post spoke with six former and current wildland firefighters about the challenges they have confronted over the past three years of worsening wildfire seasons. These firefighters were from federal, tribal and private crews, and at different stages of their careers. All conversations have been edited lightly for clarity and conciseness.

>> Courtney McGee, 32

>> Former assistant fire engine operator for the U.S. Forest Service, Tahoe National Forest; now director of operations for the Nevada Conservation Corps

“We were on the Caldor Fire, which was kind of where I grew up,” McGee said. “My family had a little cabin off Mormon Emigrant Trail, near where the fire started. We’ve gone to my family’s cabin every year, and it was so thick through there with trees that you couldn’t see much. And when I walked down the road to my family’s cabin, during the Caldor, I could see all the way across the canyon. It was weird, being in my backyard and seeing it burned down, and just informing people that I know, ‘Hey, this is what I know, this is how close it is, be prepared if you aren’t already.’”

For McGee, a summer of watching some of her favorite places burn galvanized her plan to leave firefighting after six seasons and a full-time appointment that took years to secure. She had already been weighing whether to do so. Her husband’s new job in Reno, Nev., would lengthen her commute by an hour, and she was regularly sleeping in her car at her station when she worked late nights and didn’t want to drive home. Add a lack of time with her loved ones and staff shortages that made it difficult to find people to fill in for her when she needed time off, and leaving seemed like her only option.

“I just started to feel like I had no work-life balance. My family had a rough year between covid and some family stuff that came up, and it’s hard to be there for your family when you’re out on fire assignments.

“Even on my days off, I was getting calls. And staffing is very minimal and my days off fell on weekdays, which most people don’t have off. So, my days off didn’t align with [those of] my family or friends, which is already hard enough when you’re working all the time and going on fire assignments.”

For McGee, the dizzying blend of mental and physical challenges that are common in firefighting clashed by the end of the 2021 season, which was particularly hard on communities in Northern California, where she is based. Smoke exposure, a nagging shoulder injury, and mental and physical burnout were all exacerbated for her by fires that continually shattered historical precedent in destruction, severity and acres affected.

“There was one night on the Caldor where we had done a [firing operation] and then the main fire kind of blew up, so we were woken up in the middle of the night and had to go into immediate structure protection,” McGee said. “We were in the thick of the smoke until probably 9 a.m. or so. And all of us definitely felt it the next day. We were pretty sick, like wheezy, raspy throats. I always feel exhausted the next day after long smoke exposure, and who knows what that can lead to in the long term?

“Mentally, I’m just really burned out. There’s not really a break. I feel like even on my days off, I’m like, ‘Oh, did they get a fire today? What’s going on over there? What do I need to know for tomorrow?’”

Even though McGee chose to leave the Forest Service, she is still grieving the loss. “I’ve really loved this job,” she said. “It’s such a challenge physically and mentally. I’ve learned so much about myself and met some really amazing people in the process. Some of my best friends are still in fire.”

“You’re not always in a job where you’re outside getting dirty every day, not showering for two weeks. I always tell myself that if I was in an office job, I don’t know if I would know how to act properly.”

Like many wildland firefighters, McGee found the job when she was in a nomadic phase during her 20s. At first, the excitement, travel and seasonality of fire was alluring, but eventually decisions around finding a partner, planning for children and owning a house needed a more critical look.

“When I started, I was single and it was so easy to just be gone for two weeks. But once you’re getting more settled down or have more adult commitments and priorities, it’s really hard to find that balance. I think with a career in the Forest Service, if you want to try to move up and advance your career, you have to be open and flexible to moving around. But it’s hard to just uproot your life or your family to do that.”

>> Mando Perez, 40

>> U.S. Forest Service squad leader for the Eldorado Hotshots, Pollock Pines, Calif.

“We were literally burning across the street from our base, like walking down the road, firing and looking over at our base right there,” Perez said, remembering the night in August 2021 when his crew was tasked with saving its own station and their homes during the Caldor Fire.

“Firing” means intentionally burning vegetation near an established fireline, which in many cases are roads, before a fire front approaches. When firing operations go well, these intentional blazes starve the approaching fire of fuel before it can reach structures or firelines.

“It was like, these are our friends’ homes, my captain’s home and my squad boss’s home. It was tense. I never thought I’d be fighting fire this close to home. You do have a greater sense of urgency. We try not to overthink it or overreact. You can’t let the emotions come out, because that’s how people get in [accidents] and you hear those stories all the time. We try to stay even-keeled, because once you let the emotions get involved too much, it opens up the door for bad decisions.”

Perez is a squad boss for the Eldorado Hotshots, a highly-skilled U.S. Forest Service crew based in Northern California that is particularly suited for the extremely hazardous work that is part of wildland firefighting. These crews work 14 to 21 days in a row, with only two or three days off between assignments. That can equate to about 140 days on active fire duty over a period of six months.

“When the Caldor Fire started, we got a phone call saying, ‘Hey, the fire is gonna burn your base.’ And soon after that, we got a phone call saying we were getting emergency demobilized [from the McFarland Fire] and to get back to our base,” Perez said, adding that the crew members were on day 13 of an assignment and that they were just coming off the night shift when the call came. “Everyone was just trying to register what was going on and trying to get our wits together, because it’s about a four- or five-hour drive back to base, and we were beat tired. The coffee wasn’t working.”

“When we got there, we just started trying to prep the base as much as we could, putting stuff away, getting whatever things we thought were important, all our files, all the paperwork, laptops, and we were just throwing stuff in our trucks to take home. It was rough, that first day back. But we just kept saying, ‘Whatever comes, whatever’s needed, we’ll do it. We’ll deal with it.’”

After a day off, the crew members came back as the Caldor began bearing down on their station and the surrounding communities. Work started quickly. Beyond the station were the homes and bunkhouses where many of the crew members lived, as well as infrastructure containing decades of crew culture and history.

Perez has been on the Eldorado Hotshots crew for five years, after working up from another fire position with the Eldorado National Forest. But his background is unusual compared with those of his crew members and other wildland firefighters, as Perez learned how to fight fire while in prison in his teens and 20s.

“I got in a little bit of trouble when I was young, got incarcerated, and was introduced to the fire camp program. From there, they sent me to their training, and when I turned the right age, they put me on a crew. So I was 18 when I first started, and that was with the juvenile detention program out of the Los Angeles County juvenile probation system. I did that and got out, but I fell back into the scene when I got home and got in trouble again and ended up going to the adult system on a 10-year sentence.”

Perez applied for the fire camp program during his second incarceration but assumed he would not be accepted because of the time left in his sentence. After a few attempts, he was deemed qualified and received additional training to work on wildfires as part of an incarcerated crew.

After serving eight and a half years, Perez was released early and began delivering pizzas and doing construction “just trying to make ends meet.” Eventually, he found work on federal fire crews, which hire former convicts.

“I don’t want to say it was easy to me, but it was known to me. It’s something I can fall back into pretty easily as far as training goes,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for so long and it’s simple. I knew what hard work was and I knew how to get the job done.”

But Perez has been particularly tested during his last two fire seasons, which have been among the most destructive and severe in recorded history.

“I thought 2020 was the hardest season of my life, and [2021] just blew it out of the water,” he said. “It’s tough to see it happening at this magnitude. We knew it was going to happen again, these mega fires that everyone keeps talking about. But [in 2021], they just started and never stopped. We just kept going and going and going.”

“It was taxing, and I’m understating that by far,” Perez added. “And it’s like, okay, now I need to get back into home, I need to get back into being with my kids. But how do you go from 60 to zero? It’s hard.”

>> Nathan Kahla, 28

>> Former contract firefighter for Grayback Forestry in Ashland, Ore; now a crew member of the Bitterroot Hotshots in Darby, Mont.

At one point during a wildfire in Oregon in early July 2021, “there was a sense of awe, where we were a full month ahead of the critical burn period, and every day I was seeing nine pyrocumulus clouds in different spots across the horizon,” Kahla said. The critical burn period was historically considered to be late July to September, but can now be as early as May and as late as November in some places.

“Seeing nine 30,000-foot-tall plumes and they’re all churning up 10,000 acres, I don’t remember feeling grief at that time. It was just interesting to be there while this was happening, witnessing this new level of fires. But there is grief about it, too, about the long-term health effects, but also a lot of climate grief.”

In fall 2021, Kahla was finishing his fourth season as a wildland firefighter for Grayback — a private forestry contractor based in southern Oregon — the last two of which were some of the worst fire seasons on record for Oregon and nearby Northern California. He has since moved to a federal fire crew, and works with the Bitterroot Hotshots based in Darby, Mont.

Being close to wildfires can be awe-inspiring, which is part of the reason many wildland firefighters not only get into the job, but also stick around. However, the health problems caused by being near fire for six months of the year cannot be understated.

Kahla mentioned that on one fire, the air-quality index exceeded 600 at fire camp. That is effectively off the charts for the index, which generally tops out the “very hazardous,” number of 500. Like many other wildland firefighters, Kahla and his crew were working and sleeping outside in those extremely dangerous air quality conditions for weeks.

“When we were on the Dixie Fire, we did a 26-hour shift of just getting smoked out, and everyone was pretty sick,” he said. Getting “smoked out” often means working a section of fireline where the winds are pushing the smoke at firefighters instead of back into the blaze.

“On another fire we were on in Central Oregon, the dust was volcanic, like pumice. It’s so fine, and it gets into everything, it gets deep into your lungs. It’s really demoralizing, and it’s hard to believe that anything I’m doing is worth it,” Kahla said, acknowledging that despite his love for the job, the health risks of smoke exposure are increasingly hard to grapple with.

Few studies have focused on how dust particles and smoke exposure affect wildland firefighters, and support for firefighters who develop diseases related to smoke and dust exposure is minimal. These things are viewed as part of the job, something that those who sign up to work in fire are forced to accept. To make matters worse, compensation and benefits rarely offset the myriad risks of working on wildfires.

While on the contract crew in 2021, “I had a 200-hour paycheck, which was 15-hour shifts for a 14-day assignment as a squad boss this summer. After taxes, my paycheck was a hair under $3,000,” Kahla said.

“I’m doing okay financially. Compared to most contractors, I have a very stable background and home life. But for people trying to raise kids, people trying to start families, people trying to pay for therapy, it just doesn’t work.”

This financial pressure, along with missing out on home life in the summer and innumerable other challenges, makes wildland firefighters particularly susceptible to mental health struggles, with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, suicide and suicidal ideation among the most common. An average of 25 to 30 wildland firefighters die by suicide every year, a figure significantly higher than the number of wildland firefighters who die in the line of duty. Additionally, the suicide rate within the wildland fire community is 0.3 percent, compared to 0.1 percent for the general population, according to Nelda St. Clair of the Bureau of Land Management.

“We tried to make things different in terms of sharing emotions on the [contract] crew,” Kahla said of trying to have a more open dialogue about mental health. “People felt welcomed there. And the crew came from all over. We had homeless kids, gang members, and they felt like this is where they belonged. I was just encouraging them to be emotional and to talk about what they were feeling and highlight how it’s okay to be feeling these things.”

“I talk a lot about mental health and about my experiences with therapy to make the atmosphere more receptive and evolved to that kind of stuff. And the new kids are willing to adapt to whatever situation they end up in. If they ended up in a situation that was very toxic, they would adapt to that, they would start learning those ways.”

>> Jordin Schramm, 32

>> Former U.S. Forest Service senior firefighter for the Grande Ronde Rappellers, Grande Ronde, Ore.; now an assistant engine captain for the U.S. Forest Service’s Grande Ronde Fire Zone, La Grande, Ore.

“I was planning a wedding during covid and during a 750-hour season,” Schramm said. The 750 hours she refers to is the amount of overtime she worked before her wedding on Nov. 8, 2020. The number is the general yardstick for measuring how busy a fire season was.

“And I married a hotshot,” said Schramm, who herself was a helirappeller, or a firefighter who rappels into remote wildfires from a helicopter, when she got married. “And the girl who married us was also a hotshot married to a hotshot.”

For someone who has been working in fire for 10 years like Schramm has, the wildland firefighting community can shrink each year, particularly because seasons can last up to seven months, and colleagues become like family. The unconventional schedule and lifestyle of working in fire can result in being surrounded by other fire people, who can empathize with the experience of long hours, hard shifts and all-consuming summers.

“We kind of all understand each other,” Schramm said of her husband and fire friends. “It’s one of those things where I’m not going to expect him to be home every day for dinner, or that the house is always going to be clean because we wanted to come home and relax. It’s not for everybody, that’s for sure. And you have to be okay with the phone conversations, with not seeing each other for maybe two or three months or maybe even the whole fire season. That can happen even though it hasn’t happened to us. I think we’ve had two months without physically seeing each other.”

Schramm knows a lot of women who work in the field, including four others who worked with her on her helirappel crew before she left to take a position as an assistant engine caption for the 2022 fire season. But as she nears 11 years of working in fire, there is one experience that she has found very few people can relate to: wanting to have children and stay on the line as a woman.

“I want kids, but I really don’t want to get out of fire,” Schramm said, suggesting that in wildland fire, that decision can feel like one or the other. “But it’s not one of those things where I’m going to stay in fire and have kids and be like, ‘I’ll show everybody.’ I want to stay and keep my qualifications because this is what I really like to do. But I’m not so naive to think that plan won’t change.”

“Recently, we thought maybe we’ll try [for kids], and I went to the doctor and they found some cysts. And I sometimes wonder if maybe I ignored it because I was working and I figured it would just work itself out. I hope it wasn’t something I ignored for too long and it’s now more of a problem than it could have been. But we all do that, ignore our health a little,” Schramm said.

“It’s like, you could eat better or you could manage stress better, which is kind of laughable [in fire], because you eat Spam and worry about people dying on a fire, and I don’t really know how to cut those two things out sometimes because it’s part of the job and you accept it,” she added.

“There’s nothing to complain about, but at the same time, maybe your expectations of your life have to change a little. And it’s hard to talk about this kind of stuff because there are only a couple of women who I know that are trying to stay in fire and have been able to make it work [with a family], while all my other female friends are like, ‘I don’t want kids.’ So I’m, like, ‘Okay, I can’t talk to you about this.’ Nobody ever really talks about this, which is understandable, because a lot of women [in fire] don’t want kids or don’t have kids. But at the same time, there’s a very small percentage of us that would like to have kids. And not having anybody to talk to in that situation is really difficult.”

>> Gabe Synegal, 31

>> Wildland firefighter and silviculture technician for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde (nontribal member)

“It started out because I could make a lot of good money in a short amount of time, and then I could take the [winter] off, rinse and repeat,” said Synegal, who has been a nontribal wildland firefighter for the Grand Ronde Tribe for nine years and now also serves as a silviculture technician for the tribe.

“But that kind of cycle became toxic after a bit. It led me to drinking more heavily and not really having any inner drive to do anything else because of fire seasons. When I first got into fire, I was in my early 20s and a lot of those fire paychecks were being spent to party. But after those first five years, I really started feeling it in my knees and in my mental state.”

Synegal began working for the tribe during college but dropped out with only a few credits left before graduation. He had reached “what I really thought was rock bottom,” and the coping mechanisms that he had developed to get through fire seasons and ease the transition back to the offseason had stopped working.

“I kind of hit a point in my life where the cycle wasn’t allowing for any growth,” he said. “Fire season is this five-month intense period, and then you kind of just stop. So all that cortisol is saying, ‘We need to still be doing stuff.’ And I wasn’t really doing anything, which put me in a depressive state.”

After a few years, he went back to finish his degree in exercise science before receiving a full-time position with the Grand Ronde Tribe in 2020 that included benefits as well as a more consistent work schedule and income.

“I figured this was a great thing to have income year-round,” he said. “It’s a great thing to have benefits, it’s a great thing that this has been an agency that I’ve worked for a long time. It’s also allowed me to grow a bit, kind of get out of that early-20s mind-set.”

His experience aligns with that of many wildland firefighters who begin the job in their early 20s, with little ability to cope with the difficult schedule. Even those who have been in the career for decades know how hard things can get when the switch is abruptly flipped to off, and they have been away from home, family and normal life for weeks or months. That feeling was exacerbated for Synegal as he has started to settle down and grow his family.

“It was a whole lot of feelings as my daughter was close to being born. The first thing that came to my mind was money. Diapers and all that are expensive, so it was this torn feeling of knowing I needed to be gone because this is how we bring home the bacon, but at the same time not wanting to miss these early stages of her life, because you’ll never get them back,” Synegal said.

“I have a great wife who has been dealing with this for a long time, so she’s been strong throughout it, which helps immensely. The [2021] season was pretty hard for me mentally, because my baby girl is getting older now. But it’s a necessary sacrifice for the time being. It just takes a little bit more planning, which is hard to do with a job like this,” he added.

“On the positive end of it, it allows me to push through certain times where things get tough, when you’ve been out for a month between assignments and you’re in the grind of the season. [My daughter has] been a motivating factor, because I feel I need to provide, and I want to give her a life that I didn’t have. But those two days, three days off [between assignments] go by in the blink of an eye, and each time I have to pack up that bag, I do it a little bit slower.”

>> Torey Wakeland, 36

>> Wildland firefighter and ceded lands program manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde

Wakeland comes from a long line of ancestors who were involved in fire. “Our ancestors, though they may not have considered themselves as such, were firefighters themselves,” he said. “We used fire to help modify the landscape since time immemorial. We managed for cultural resources, wildlife resources, habitat.”

Cultural burning has a strong presence for many tribes in the West, where fire is used to encourage certain plant growth, clear overgrown vegetation, and improve habitat for hunting and movement. However, land agencies prohibited this Indigenous and cultural burning for much of the 20th century, a step that was taken to protect timber resources and communities but has ultimately removed fire from landscapes that have long coexisted with it.

Bringing healthy and ecologically beneficial fire back to these landscapes has required a coordinated effort by tribal members such as Wakeland’s father, who was deeply involved in creating a fire program for the Grand Ronde Tribe in the early 1990s. The program now employs upward of 60 people who are tribal and nontribal, some seasonal and some year-round.

“My dad used to talk about how the absence of fire on the landscape for so long has become quite pivotal in how intense fires are,” Wakeland said. “Our ancestors used fire as a management tool, and then having those practices stop allowed the vegetation to become much more dense than it’s been for tens of thousands of years, [which is why] you’re seeing that increase in fire intensity and fire behavior.”

His father’s involvement in forestry and returning fire to the landscapes of the Grand Ronde’s ancestral land inspired Wakeland to pursue similar work after he completed his wildlife biology degree at the University of Montana.

“Following in my dad’s footsteps has been really cool. It just felt like a natural progression for me. Additionally, being a tribal member and working for my tribe was important. And then to tie that in with the wildlife piece, you know, wildfires can be quite disruptive and we think of them that way, but they also provide a lot of really good wildlife habitat as things start to regrow and dense vegetation is opened up. Being able to see both sides, the goods and the bads of wildfire, really interests me.”

Wakeland has spent the past 19 years working in fire, and despite his office job with the tribe, he continues to work wildfires throughout the fire season. This has allowed him to witness the extent to which fires have changed over the past two decades, not only in how they burn but where they burn and how intensely they move.

For example, on the Lionshead Fire in northwest Oregon in 2020, “a big wind event kicked up and we were getting 40- to 60-mile-per-hour winds, and at that same time, there were a lot of downed power lines. So that started additional fires and all of these things began lining up, between the winds, dry weather, fire already on the landscape, and then new fires starting. We had a lot of fires that converged.”

The wind event is known as the Labor Day Firestorm, a result of extreme fire weather, multiple fires burning and an unprecedented east wind event in early September 2020. The Lionshead alone grew 90,000 acres from Sept. 7 to 9. The nearby Beachie Creek Fire added 130,00 acres in one night on Sept. 7.

“The intensity of these fires is insane, just because there is all that fuel load,” Wakeland said. “We actually popped two fires [in 2021] that were holdovers from the Lionshead Fire [in 2020], so that’s a lot of heat still in the ground even a year later, past the snow and the rain. That speaks to how intense that fire was.”

He added, “We’re seeing some more prescribed fire-management practices on private lands, park lands and some smaller state lands, but it doesn’t seem like it’s being applied to these big federal forests, at least not yet, or not enough to make quite a difference yet.”