By Nick Bohnstedt, Field Operations Specialist (Acting), Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center
It’s now fall time. As we all know, as the seasons change, so does the job of a wildland firefighter. For some, fire season or prescribed fire season is just getting started. For others, it may mean 4-6 months off to reconnect with friends and family. For management, it may mean a transition to life in the office making plans for next season amidst an endless stream of meetings. For a few, and maybe more than we know about, it may mean financial instability, unhealthy coping mechanisms, isolation, or a departure from identity.
Wildland firefighter mental health is a hot topic these days, and for good reason. I’m not going to start throwing statistics around, but we know that mental health can be an issue that affects us all, particularly as we “let the air out of the balloon” at the end of a long fire season. With that in mind, what lessons have we, or you, learned regarding this time of year?
Personally, I have learned a few lessons—borne from both the “hits” and the “misses”—during my more than 21 seasons in wildland fire as a crewmember, supervisor, friend, and husband.
I’ve felt that feeling of pride as my employees leave for parts unknown with pockets full of money, new friends, and the acknowledgement of a job well done at the end of a tough season. I’ve been part of many group text message threads with the crew on Christmas morning, filled with that same camaraderie and irreverent humor that money simply can’t buy.
I’ve also received that call in the middle of winter that a close fire friend died by suicide. In the aftermath, I’ve sat staring at the wall in darkness wondering if there was anything I missed or could have done differently that would have changed the outcome.
From the smiles to the tears and everything in between, I would now like to share a few of these lessons with you that I’ve learned over the past 21 years.
Name it to tame it. To pretend that the end of the season and the subsequent transition to whatever comes next might not have an effect on you—only makes whatever you might experience that much weirder if it does. Some might experience “Ops Normal”. For others, the end of the season may be a “Red Flag Warning”. In any case, keeping a “Heads Up” both on the fireline and in your personal life is never a bad practice. Talking openly about it with the other members of the team can help to normalize the conversation and prepare for both the expected and unexpected.
Give yourself some grace. Have you ever said “copy” after someone asks you to pass the mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving? Perhaps your beard resembles a feral animal? Maybe that black stuff on your hands simply will not come off. Life on the fireline is a unique experience that those outside of fire may not understand. To assume that you can just “switch it off” immediately may be a tall order. Acknowledge the change, give it some time, and maybe even get in a few laughs about it.
Stay connected. What makes the seemingly insurmountable task of managing a force of nature such as wildfire is found within the strength of the team. The unit. The crew. The module. When the team goes their separate ways, for some it can make the load feel that much heavier. Make time for that end of the season get-together. Take the winter road trip and crash on someone’s couch. Make the call or send the text. Tell the stories and share the load. We’re stronger together.
Get grounded. We all know that life on fires tends to pick up a particular rhythm at some point. Wake up, pack up, eat, commute, work, refurb, eat, sleep. Rinse (bad pun?) and repeat. When your transition occurs, whatever that looks like, finding a rhythm of your own can help keep you grounded. Whether that is a good PT regiment, balanced diet, mindfulness or meditative practice, or personal hobby, consistency in the basics can set a good foundation for whatever comes next.
Use the resources. All the resources in the world don’t mean squat if you don’t use them. Employee Assistance Programs, counselors, non-profit community organizations such as churches, or simply reaching out to a fire sister or brother are all great resources. But you need to take that first step. All too often, the stigma surrounding using these resources can be a barrier to taking that step, which emphasizes how critical it is for us to stay connected. Sometimes it seems we know when another member of the team is a little “off” better than we recognize changes in our own behavior. When we stay connected, it provides an opportunity to identify, advocate for, and normalize the use of these valuable resources.
Whatever comes next, look out for yourself and your crew.
I know you will.
National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG)
Mental Health Subcommittee Web Page:
Nation Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)