Preparedness

249 Nights Away at California Fires: Firefighter Families Cope With a 'New Normal'

by Adam Ashton, Ryan Lillis And William Ramirez, The Sacramento Bee / August 6, 2018
AP/Jeff Chiu

(TNS) - Melissa Morgado began 2018 trying to solve an arithmetic problem: How many nights did she and her firefighter husband spend apart because of work in the previous year?

He was gone for the hot summer months, of course, and again for most of October, and then 19 more days in December when deadly fires broke out on the Central Coast.

Her tally hit 249 nights, the most she and her husband spent apart in his 14 years at Cal Fire.

“I don’t like the term ‘fire season’ anymore. It’s a fire year,” said Morgado, 33, who wrote about their long separations in a popular blog post called “A Year in the Life of a Cal Fire Wife.”

The stress on her home and thousands of other firefighter families in California is another sign of the state’s “new normal” of severe, drawn-out wildfires that begin earlier in the year and run almost to the end of it.

Those expansive fires are leading emergency agencies to change their tactics, and they’re also prompting firefighters and their families to rethink how they manage the strains of long months in harm’s way.

Alarming reports of suicides, substance abuse and domestic violence persuaded Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott to pour resources into firefighter support services.

“We’re responding to unprecedented kinds of fire. We’re doing everything we have to do, so how do we make sure we’re taking care of our employees?” he said.

An April study released by the nonprofit Ruderman Family Foundation reported that firefighters experience a higher suicide rate than the general American population, and that 103 firefighters killed themselves while 93 died on duty. The report followed a 2015 study that found firefighters experienced an “alarmingly high” rate of suicidal thoughts.

Some firefighters are turning to Cal Fire-sponsored support services that offer counseling in the field and at home fire stations. Others are using union-backed counselors to talk through some of the life-changing scenes firefighters are witnessing on the fire lines.

And some, like Morgado’s family, are making a point to schedule time off even in what used to be considered the peak of California’s fire season.

In the past, “you could assume you’d be home for the holidays. Not anymore,” said Cal Fire Deputy Chief Michael Ming, 41, the incoming deputy chief of the department’s employee support program.

He, too, has started scheduling vacation days in the late summer so he’s ready for what might come in the fall, or later.

Giving CPR to a baby

Ming is part of a seven-person team in a department-sponsored unit that aims to improve the emotional and psychological well-being of firefighters and their families. The program, called employee support services, dates back to the 1990s. It swelled to resemble its current state — with seven full-time staff members and trained liaisons throughout the state — about five years ago.

They visit the toughest fires and walk the lines with rank-and-file firefighters. They train firefighters to look for signs of post-traumatic stress in each other, and hold seminars for spouses.

Firefighter unions offer a parallel resource, sending peer counselors to traumatic events, like suicides and firefighter on-duty deaths. California Professional Firefighters, the umbrella organization that advocates for most California fire unions, has trained more than 200 of them.

“What you have to focus on is doing your job and being able to take that experience after it happened, and do some analysis with it,” said California Professional Firefighters President Brian Rice, who can still vividly describe the first death he witnessed on duty in the 1980s.

Their efforts to raise awareness about mental health coincide with growing recognition that firefighters carry vivid memories of traumatic events long after their shifts end.

“This is all still groundbreaking,” said Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Scott Ross, 53, a peer counselor for the International Association of Firefighters who spent the past week in Redding talking with firefighters battling the Carr Fire. “There are still departments that don’t have peer training, but in the last few years, I’ve seen this trend of people understanding and departments understanding that we have to take care of our own.”

Counselors like Ross build connections with on-the-ground firefighters by listening, and by relating the moments that stayed with them for decades. They leave their phone numbers where they can, and follow up weeks and months later.

Ming, for instance, couldn’t sleep at times because he worried an electrical fire would strike his house. His partner, Dattalion Chief Robert Ellis, for decades cried when he remembered the time he tried to resuscitate an infant who had died from sudden infant death syndrome. The baby reminded him of his own daughter.

“I thought I would lose it and end up in a straitjacket,” Ellis, 65, said. “I couldn’t handle the thought that I might go out of my mind. When I found out my mind was working in a normal way, I could handle that. I could handle being normal. It was the abnormal that scared me.”

‘We’re stretched super thin’

This year is shaping up to be another intense one, with massive, deadly wildfires taking off from the North Coast to Yosemite, claiming the lives of three firefighters and a Cal Fire contractor.

“We’re stretched super thin,” Cal Fire firefighter Trevor Pappas said last week in downtown Lakeport, where Cal Fire and U.S. Forest Services battled to check fast-growing blazes. “We have crews everywhere.”

Across the state, firefighters are spending weeks in the field before returning to their homes. Some are confronting life-changing scenes, like the two-day effort to recover Cal Fire firefighter Braden Varney after he tumbled to his death into a steep Mariposa County canyon.

His friends and former colleagues stood watch over him until they could muster up a safe recovery plan that had them lifting his body hand by hand out of the canyon.

“Firefighters knew what was at stake. They knew it was dangerous. The fire was coming. But that’s what firefighters do, and Braden was brought to the road,” Cal Fire’s Nancy Koerperich, Varney’s unit chief, said at his memorial last month.

Exhaustion is setting in for some.

“People are definitely tired. People are working 24 hour shifts: 24 on, 24 off. You can work for 21 days then have two days off and go back out and have 21 days on again,” said Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean.

Cal Fire last week received permission to hire 300 more seasonal firefighters, who will round out the department’s ranks and help ensure that firefighters can rest as the fires drag on.

“Right now what we’re working on is just trying to get these guys some relief because they’re going nonstop,” said Tim Edwards, the rank and file director for the union that represents Cal Fire firefighters. “These guys have no relief, and that’s what takes a toll, not just their bodies, but their families.”

Taking time

Morgado, the Cal Fire wife, didn’t like what she saw when she realized that her husband was home for only 109 nights last year. Aside from the 249 he spent at fire stations and in the field, he had a week-long elk hunt that kept him away, too.

They have two children with a third on the way. She wanted her kids to have more time with their dad.

“He just missed out on the first year of his son’s life and almost all of our daughters 'terrific 3’s.' He missed the ups and downs of our fast growing children. Next time you see a firefighter, know that they don’t just risk their lives for the lives of strangers. They also sacrifice being present with their families,” Morgado wrote on her blog.

They live in southern Idaho. He commutes for 72-hour shifts at a station in the northeast corner of California. It sounds like a long drive, but many Cal Fire firefighters have similar commutes when they move from station to station as they seek better jobs in the department.

This year, the couple decided they would be better off scheduling more vacation days. That can be complicated for firefighters. They often have to book vacations months, or a year, in advance. Firefighters with more seniority get more leeway.

Her husband has been gone since July 11, but she’s looking forward to a break they scheduled later this month.

“I know there’s a certain day; there’s a light of the end tunnel,” she said.

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