As wildfires increase in intensity and frequency, a Canadian initiative is protecting the mental health of those on the front lines.
Wildfire season is back. Over the weekend, hundreds of firefighters fought to contain a wildfire in New Mexico that forced thousands of people to be evacuated and destroyed at least 166 homes.
In late April, more than 700 homes were evacuated as a "wall of fire" swept across parts of Arizona. Experts say such events are an early warning sign of what’s to come in the warmer months, with the situation heavily exacerbated by human-induced climate change and set to get even worse in coming decades.
The toll uncontrolled wildfires take on communities is enormous and well documented. Less discussed is the lasting, invisible mark these fires can leave on wildland firefighters after the wildfire season is over.
In Canada, definitions of safety for wildland firefighter crews have previously centered almost exclusively on physical safety. And mental health resources, where available, haven't been widely known, with any support offered predominantly limited to that provided after traumatic events.
But a new preventative form of peer support is helping Canadian crews address the cumulative stress of their jobs before they get to the point of mental burnout or breakdown.
"When you defuse these things properly, then you have the potential not only to mitigate negative things but to enhance positive things and growth and new directions," according to Erik Hanson of the BC Wildfire Service, who says he has experienced first hand the difference a preventative approach can make.
BC Wildfire launched Resilient Minds with help from the Canadian Mental Health Association in 2019 following two unprecedented wildfire seasons. It was adapted from a successful pilot program serving City of Vancouver firefighters in 2016.
In a few days of training, peer leaders learn to recognize and talk about early signs of stress among their ranks, as well as civilians, to help prevent further harm.
While similar preventative, peer-led models for mental health exist in the U.S., Resilient Minds is the first program of its kind to be offered in Canada and is slowly gaining traction across the country.
The need for mental health support is apparent. Structural firefighters — those who work in cities or towns — have been shown to experience post-traumatic stress disorder at two times the rate of the general population.
In turn, wildfire fighters are at higher risk of developing mental health conditions like depression, PTSD, and anxiety than the general public, according to Patricia O'Brien, a researcher and member of the PTSD clinical team for Veterans Affairs in Portland, Oregon, who adds that these conditions are often under-treated, if detected at all.
Since the 1990s, wildland firefighters have used what’s called Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM), an internationally recognized standard for debriefing and mental health support in response to traumatic situations, like an injury or death of a crew member.
But CISM is reactive, a form of emergency first aid. In contrast, Resilient Minds and programs like it aim to build resilience through early intervention, something Hanson and his colleagues argue is more vital than ever as climate change increases the rate and intensity of wildfires, and as communities sprawl into forested areas.
"In the not so distant past, Erik [Hanson] and I would have almost exclusively fought fire in the forest. And now we almost exclusively fight fires in and around communities," says Steve Lemon, who works with Hanson. "This has raised the stress response significantly."
Adding to the stress is the transient nature of wildland firefighters' jobs which can make it hard to connect with family, community, and healthy routines, all of which buffer mental health impacts, says O'Brien.
"They're in high risk environments for a big chunk of the year. They’re with a team of people that they may belong to… and then fire season ends and often people kind of go their separate ways."
For wildland firefighters, there's no avoiding potentially traumatic events. And mental and physiological responses like sleep disturbances, depression, anxiety, and substance use are normal reactions to abnormal events. What Resilient Minds seeks to do is support individuals to process stressful situations in healthier ways.
Take the 2021 wildfire season in British Columbia, which will forever be known as the year the village of Lytton burned to the ground just after the highest temperature in Canada was recorded at 49.6C.
As the long season came to a close, for the first time ever, crews across the province called in help to debrief. Not to review operations, or because of one traumatic incident in particular, but because "so much crazy shit happened," recounts Hanson. "We know that part of keeping healthy is talking about this stuff."
As well as communication, Resilient Minds helps wildland firefighters learn ways to manage stress through measures such as better sleep habits and healthy nutrition. They also cover what services are available, like CISM, counseling, and a dedicated crisis line. When team leaders go back into the field, they're able to help break a barrier of stigma that has contributed to so many wildland firefighters suffering in silence.
"I've known five people within wildfire who have chosen suicide. That has left a really profound impact on me," says Lemon, whose career spans 26 years. Forty-six first responders died by suicide in Canada in 2017 and this does not include those who are retired or no longer on the job.
Today, the addition of two words to Lemon’s job title reflects a culture shift across the BC Wildfire Service — head of safety and wellbeing.
"We don’t profess to be counselors or therapists ourselves," he says. "But if coworkers can say, 'Hey, it looks like you’re struggling here. Can I get you some help to talk to a therapist or counselor?' That’s what we find the biggest benefit of it is."
While these supports are in their infancy, according to O’Brien, similar peer-based programs are on the rise. Comprehensive Wellbeing and Resilience is offered in the U.S.
In Ontario, they’ve adopted a Road to Mental Readiness training, which is used by the military. The long term impacts of these types of resiliency programs are still being studied. But they hold promise, especially when widely implemented before traumatic events.
At the outset of the Resilient Minds pilot study involving roughly 400 Vancouver firefighters, 30% reported having little to no knowledge about mental health. Coming out, nearly everyone surveyed reported feeling more prepared to respond to a colleague who may be struggling.
"Most workers will seek out support from people they know and from their community, before they will go to an outside therapist or counselor," says Lemon. Since the Resilient Minds training, he's noticed more leaders and supervisors in the field checking in with their staff to ask if there's anything they’re struggling with. "It really just kind of opens the door and allows people to say, 'I am feeling stressed,' or 'I am feeling burnt out.'"
In the past, says Hanson, the attitude was generally "let's just suck it up and go forward".
Today, he says, the volume of calls to their 24 hour safe reporting line has gone up dramatically.
Awareness is leading to new services, like phone apps and access to a mental health retreat for first responders called Honour House, and mental health conditions are now tracked as workplace injuries like physical wounds.
They aim to have one in five wildland firefighters trained with Resilient Minds across B.C., to mirror their supervisor structure. Though they have yet to reach the target in some regions, Hanson and Lemon are hopeful as they work to adapt the training for all new recruits.
"In many cases, just like if you irrigate a wound, it doesn't get infected and you don't have to worry about it. It just heals," says Hanson. "Ideally, if we put enough time and energy into Resilient Minds ahead of time, then people understand and they sort of see stuff coming."