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Burden firefighters face can affect families, health

The fire crew paused for a picture during the Hog Fire, near Susanville, in July. From left, Consolidated Firefighter Jason Niederberger, Capt. Jared McElhannon, Capt. Nathan Menth, Lt. Chris Johnsen and Battalion Chief Jim Smith.
Submitted to The Union

The 2020 fire season is breaking records, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. 

Capt. Nathan Menth, of the Nevada County Consolidated Fire Department, is one of over 19,000 fire fighters that took to the hills of the San Gabriel Valley on one end of the state and Mount Shasta at the other between July and October.

Menth is currently the public information officer for Nevada County Consolidated, but flexes into different roles in his department and across the state as needed. 



Menth said his job requires high performance and extreme attention to detail while under duress. As public servants in a fraught time, California’s firefighters are reckoning with the risks of the pandemic combined with exposure “to prolonged periods of degraded air quality,” according to the U.S. Forest Service website. 

The North Complex Fire was just one of the fires to the north of Nevada County that turned the region’s sky gray. At its peak, the North Complex Fire spread at 2,000 acres per hour which — according to Park Williams, a research professor at Columbia’s Earth Institute — is the equivalent to one football field every two seconds. To compare, the 2018 Camp Fire spread at seven football fields per second. 



According to a Cal Fire press release, since the beginning of 2020, 8,600 wildfires have burned over 4.1 million acres in California — that’s 4% of California’s entire acreage. The Gold Coast lit up two weeks before PG&E launched its fire preparedness month in September.

ON THE JOB DEMANDS

Menth said situational awareness, likely curated by a combination of character and training, is required to do his job well. 

“We try to read our surroundings and are hyper-aware,” Menth said. “We consider what is happening, what may happen and what could happen.”

Menth was the strike team leader on the Hog Fire. He returned home for a few days and then drove south to Angeles National Forest to fight the Lake Fire and the Ranch 2 Fire. 

After weeks on the road, Menth’s team was diverted from its route home to fight the Moc Fire that popped up on their way from southern California.

“When the deployment is complete and you’ve been demobilized, we’re still first responders traveling up and down the interstate,” Menth said. “We’re scanning radio channels and 25 minutes out from home we heard a new vegetation fire started in the town of Newcastle, 10 minutes away.” 

As fatigued as the team was, Menth explained, it was in the best possible position to provide the first response. Menth said firefighters must maintain their operational state of readiness at all times.

Jerry Funk said as chief he supports the Consolidated Fire District personnel by ensuring they have the tools needed — proper equipment, safety gear and regular trainings — to prepare for fire season.

Funk said by the time October hits, his firefighters have been “pretty active” for over four months.

“Employees’ time off is very limited because of the demand,” Funk said. “Not only do we have our local obligation — maintain our presence and keep our fire station staffed locally — but we must help the California Mutual Aid system.”

If 200 firefighters are active at a single fire, Funk explained, they are coming from more than one station.

“It’s a balancing act for this office,” Funk said.

Funk said some of his firefighters work up to 600 hours in a month, so the team does what it can to support each other in and out of the station. Off-duty first responders may support their coworkers’ families by taking on pressing domestic tasks at home.

The chief said his daughter used to joke about how her dad’s absence in the summer meant the family would have “a good Christmas” and vice versa — how his presence at home in the warmer months signified a leaner holiday season.

According to the MIT Technology Review, fighting wildfires on U.S. Forest Service land is $800 an acre. Given the year’s outbreaks, the fire suppression “business” is booming, but the psychological cost remains unknown.

MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES

Funk said the fire service operates best as a family, but has not always had a concerted approach to mental health support services.

“For the fire service in general it was, ‘Suck it up, don’t be a baby,’” Funk said. “It was something that was overlooked and we were expected to deal with it. Now, we have peer counselors and people are more open to asking for help.”

Rick Barton is the CEO of the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, Inc. (ICISF). The foundation’s mission is to educate first responders on Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM). Methods introduced by CISM give first responders the mental health tools needed to help peers process trauma witnessed on the job.

Barton said a rudimentary version of peer-supported stress management was first introduced in the U.S. 35 years ago. The idea, Barton said, was to offer a more viable source of support for human first responders personally affected by trauma witnessed on the job.

“Most people don’t want to talk to a company shrink. They want to talk to a pal or someone who doesn’t know them at all,” Barton said.

Barton said he is grateful for the cultural milestones — including law enforcement-based television shows — that help the public understand the psychological weight first responders bear in their line of duty.

The psychological phenomena remains difficult to treat, but “PTSD has become a household term,” Barton said, and that is a good thing.

Barton said firefighters can be affected by sustained exposure to a trauma — like a natural disaster with a month or longer fallout — and frequently, survivor’s guilt.

Barton said addressing a human-caused or preventable incident can also have a particular psychological effect on first responders. First responders may experience a “heightened degree of angst” when responding to a drunk driving accident.

Barton said anxiety induced by reckless human behavior can also extend into political decisions and their impact on day-to-day lives.

“When you’re dealing with an incident that is contributed or caused by the behavior of policy makers, it’s like, ‘Shouldn’t they be smarter than us?’” Barton asked.

CLIMATE

Barton said an argument can be made that it’s people’s poor management of the environment that’s causing the fires.

Barton said whether or not the record breaking fires are human-caused or reflect normal cycles of climate change, neglected forests need to be managed.

“I’m the last person that wants to see beautiful trees cut down,” said Barton, a former manager of the Maryland Park Service.

Barton explained that unless politicians offer recourse for climate-related disaster prevention, firefighters will continue to fight a losing battle.

“People are arguing about it as if it’s a political issue,” Barton said. “It’s a scientific issue.”

As the politicians argue, firefighters will keep fighting the good fight, Menth said, per their rigorous training.

“We are a tangible entity throughout this nation and throughout this world to respond to people in need,” Menth said. “We are mission driven — the protection of life, property and environment.”

Menth said the policies, procedures and expectations of firefighters give them the “luxury to make decisions that dramatically and positively change the outcome of an emergency.”

“Emergency continues, life continues, the need for responders continues, on many fronts,” Menth said. “The training and level of devotion from agencies I work with is paramount and quite significant to be a part of.”

Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union. She can be reached at roneil@theunion.com.


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