California Is Prioritizing Mental Health Among Firefighters as Climate Change Worsens Wildfires

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California is stepping up to help its first responders and firefighters in light of worsening and more deadly wildfire seasons. Governor Gavin Newsom signed a few bills Tuesday to increase the access to mental health services for the state’s first responders. This comes almost a year after the state saw the deadliest wildfire in its history, and it’s much needed as climate change continues to intensify the blazes firefighters are expected to put out and save people from.

The bills Newsom signed will create a peer support network across the state, add post-traumatic stress disorder as an eligible injury for worker’s compensation, and prevent public agencies from contracting out their 911 services to private for-profit companies. The peer support programs and financial assistance for employees suffering from PTSD are the focus here, though. They’re creating new opportunities for individuals who are dealing with the severe mental stress that comes with fighting fires.

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“The job of firefighters and first responders can be very rewarding, but at the same time, extremely unpredictable,” said Newsom in a news release. “They can experience high-stress situations and traumatic incidents that can push them to the limit both physically and mentally, and we need to recognize and take those challenges head on. These bills are meant to ensure they have access to resources and help in their time of need, in the same way they assist their communities when they need them most.”

First responders in the U.S., including firefighters and police officers, are more likely to die from suicide than they are to die from their dangerous work, according to an analysis from the Ruderman Family Foundation. Mental illness, a feeling of hopelessness, and loss can contribute to suicide, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In California specifically, 46 firefighters and emergency medical workers have taken their lives in the past five years.

The state saw wildfire after wildfire last year, and with them, the continual loss of life and communities. It can be easy to feel hopeless when exposed to all that, especially knowing that climate change will only increase the risk of large, destructive wildfires. The idea of these new laws is that first responders will have the resources to help them cope with the trauma of facing fires.

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“There’s a lot of satisfaction in being able to help people, but there’s also a lot of fear, which is normal,” Sally Brodsky, a licensed clinical psychologist who no longer practices but worked with 9/11 survivors, told Earther. “They need access, and they need to normalize the idea that they’re going to want to cry, that they’re going to want to be angry, and that they still can carry on and do their job—or not.”

Earther is awaiting comment from the governor’s office on whether any resources offered from these bills will be available for the state’s roughly 2,600 incarcerated people who help the state battle wildfires through its Fire Camp program. They, too, are on the scene when flames are engulfing communities and help save lives—and witness the dark side of fires when lives and property are lost.

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Louie Chagolla, a 25-year-old who’s helped fight wildfires in California with the U.S. Forest Service for the past five years, got his start as a firefighter while incarcerated as an 18-year-old. He still learning what it takes to fight fires and hasn’t experienced the horrors that more seasoned firefighters have, but he’s felt the pressure of the work and seen firsthand the destruction wildfires can cause. Chagolla told Earther that knowing individuals may have been in situations where their lives were at risk can be traumatizing but so can be witnessing your colleagues suffer an injury on the job. The goal is always to get everyone home at the end of the day, and that doesn’t always work out.

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“We all have things that we might be going through, and sometimes it might be a little bit hard,” he said. “So the fact that they’re doing this to have [mental health services] even more available, I think, is great.”

He’d love to see these services extended to incarcerated people working in the state’s Fire Camps because they’re also putting their lives on the line. Incarcerated individuals already make next to nothing for performing back-breaking work. The state increased the daily rate for this work in March from $2 to $5.12 (which comes with an additional dollar an hour when fighting active fires) to encourage more people to join the program. Offering counseling and mental health services to deal with the trauma of fighting fires would be another way to foster a more supportive atmosphere.

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“The fact that they’re being incarcerated and they’re putting their lives on the line and making very little to no money to do it, I think, has a lot on the mental health,” Chagolla said. “I do believe that would be a great opportunity for those in the camp program.”

Unfortunately, mental health services are lacking across the U.S. Only 43 percent of adults with mental illness received treatment last year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Climate change is set to worsen mental health nationwide as a result of exposure to natural disasters (such as wildfires or hurricanes) and the anxiety that comes with such an overwhelming global crisis.

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“At this point, it’s not just about firefighters,” Brodsky said. “It’s about all of us.”

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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