How can I support wildland firefighters?

From handwritten letters to donating hot meals, postdoctoral fellow and clinical psychology Ph.D. Jena Casas offers advice on how you can support wildland firefighters this challenging fire season.

(Left) Headshot of Jena Casas. Top-right: wildland firefighters trudge through challenging terrain in Desolation Wilderness while working on the Caldor Fire. Bottom-right: A hand-made sign for the firefighters on the Caldor Fire reads "Thank you firefighters. You kick ash!".

Left: Jena Casas. Top-right: wildland firefighters trudge through challenging terrain while working on the Caldor Fire. Bottom-right: A hand-made sign thanks the firefighters on the Caldor Fire. (fire photos courtesy of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group)

How can I support wildland firefighters?

From handwritten letters to donating hot meals, postdoctoral fellow and clinical psychology Ph.D. Jena Casas offers advice on how you can support wildland firefighters this challenging fire season.

Left: Jena Casas. Top-right: wildland firefighters trudge through challenging terrain while working on the Caldor Fire. Bottom-right: A hand-made sign thanks the firefighters on the Caldor Fire. (fire photos courtesy of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group)

(Left) Headshot of Jena Casas. Top-right: wildland firefighters trudge through challenging terrain in Desolation Wilderness while working on the Caldor Fire. Bottom-right: A hand-made sign for the firefighters on the Caldor Fire reads "Thank you firefighters. You kick ash!".

Left: Jena Casas. Top-right: wildland firefighters trudge through challenging terrain while working on the Caldor Fire. Bottom-right: A hand-made sign thanks the firefighters on the Caldor Fire. (fire photos courtesy of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group)

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It seems that wildland fires have become the new normal for summers in the American West. Our blue skies turn grey, the warmth from the sun feels different, and more days are spent inside to reduce our exposure to unsafe air quality. This year’s fire season is set to bring destruction and devastation to record highs. At the time of this article, the Dixie Fire, burning for 66 days, across five counties, devastating more than 960 thousand acres, and destroying entire communities, was the second most destructive fire in California history and the Caldor Fire, burning for 36 days, across three counties, had displaced residents, burned homes, and closed national forests, trails, and beaches.

Wildland firefighters are the boots on the ground dispatched to suppress and contain these fires. Their job is dangerous and demanding and involves long assignments (i.e., approximately 16  hour work days) of 14 days or more at a time. On the job, firefighters are exposed to a number of high-risk emergency situations, including repeated and prolonged exposure to devastation, destruction, death and or serious injury. They also face risk of burns, entrapment due to unpredictable weather, impact injuries from falling trees and debris, vehicle-related injuries, exposure to pollutants, dehydration and other heat-related illnesses, with some estimates suggesting that between 80 to 100 firefighters are killed in the line of duty each year.

Although wildfire firefighting is typically seasonal work, it is overtly dangerous and physically strenuous and requires a workforce that is both skillful and courageous. These firefighters develop expertise in evaluating the impact of weather and the topography of the terrain on fire behavior and become competent in a range of fire suppression, management, and control strategies. Problematically, firefighters often receive pay incommensurate with the toll of the work; starting salary for the U.S. Forest Service as an entry level firefighter is just above $12.00 an hour. Yet, as wildfire season continues, firefighters experience disruptions in sleep, diet, fitness, and family routines that may increase their risk for physical and mental health problems long-term. Firefighters are at heightened risk for depression, anxiety, substance use problems, post-traumatic stress, respiratory problems, heart disease, and suicidality, and alarmingly, firefighters are reported to be more likely to die by suicide than a work-related injury.

The firefighting profession is one of duty, respect, and integrity. Many firefighters might say that they “are just doing their job”, when considering the sacrifices that they make on the job, but I would argue it can’t hurt to remind them that they are valued and that we appreciate their impact each fire season.

Fortunately, research has shown that social support and feelings of belonging can be powerful protective factors against a host of mental health problems. As wildfire season continues, there are a number of small ways that we can step up as a community to increase feelings of support and belongingness for these firefighters. We can:

  • Write handwritten thank you letters.
  • Comment, share, and like images on social media. Follow along with hashtags such as #staystrongtahoe, #caldorfire, #dixiefire #wildlandfirefighters for opportunities to publicly express your support.
  • Reach out to local departments and ask if they need volunteers or donations. Call ahead of time and ensure you understand their departments rules; sometimes they can accept donations or specialty services for firefighters or their families, sometimes they cannot. Some ideas may include:
    • those that are trained in yoga or mindfulness can offer to teach a course.
    • those that own food establishments can offer meals.
    • those that work with therapy animals can offer time with the animals.
    • barbers or hairstylists can offer to provide haircuts.
  • Donate funds to organizations that can provide instrumental support to firefighters and their families.
  • Donate to organizations that help individuals and animals directly impacted by the fires.

The firefighting profession is one of duty, respect, and integrity. Many firefighters might say that they “are just doing their job”, when considering the sacrifices that they make on the job, but I would argue it can’t hurt to remind them that they are valued and that we appreciate their impact each fire season.

About Dr. Jena Casas

Jena Casas holds a master’s degree in criminal justice and a doctoral degree in clinical psychology from the University of Nevada, Reno. She has five years of clinical experience providing treatment to individuals with trauma and trauma-related disorders, including victims of interpersonal violence. Currently, Dr. Casas is examining the occupational trauma exposure in first responders, among other topics, as a postdoctoral fellow in the DICE Center. She has published two peer reviewed journal articles discussing trauma narratives written anonymously by first responders and the impact of traumatic stress on law enforcement families. You can follow her on Instagram: @doc.jena.

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