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For Wildland Firefighters, a New Crisis Is Growing

They're at higher risk of PTSD, suicide with wildfires only getting worse
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 29, 2021 2:01 PM CDT
For Wildland Firefighters, a New Crisis Is Growing
In this Aug. 16, 2021, file photo, a firefighter battles the Dixie Fire as it jumps Highway 395, south of Janesville in Lassen County, Calif.   (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

(Newser) – They are, in the jargon of federal bureaucracy, "forestry technicians." To these "technicians," however, the job title is an insult. In reality, these are federal wildland firefighters who quite literally risk their lives every long day they're on the job, all for the reward of low pay and off-the-charts stress, writes Daliah Singer in the Guardian. Base pay for these firefighters is under $14 an hour (it's generally higher for state wildland firefighters), and while they do get overtime and hazard pay, that extra cash must support them in the offseason. As for the job itself, Singer collects first-hand accounts of terrifying close calls. “It’s hard to explain the sound trees make when they torch, much less a half-mile of them in a line in front of you,” says one former firefighter, a man who was eventually diagnosed with PTSD. "It’s deafening."

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And then there's the mental toll of losing fellow firefighters or dealing with families who have lost everything, all while wildfires are increasing in size and intensity. "The exposure to human suffering in the last three years is not something you’d see at a typical day of work at firefighting—entire communities destroyed, loss of human life, loss of wildlife, loss of the landscape that we treasure," says Nelda St Clair, stress management program manager for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. "That’s not what wildland firefighters signed up to do, but it’s what they’re exposed to." All of which helps explain why they tend to be at high risk for everything from sleep deprivation and depression to PTSD and suicide. Comradery on the job helps, but "social disconnect" in the offseason compounds everything. The story digs into efforts to get the firefighters help and better pay, though efforts to reclassify them as "wildland firefighters" is hung up in Congress. (Read it here.)

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