Cal Fire Battalion Chief Miguel Watson wakes to the wind whipping through the trees. The whole night is ahead of him. He lies there and then, feeling restless, gets up and walks to his pickup truck.
He listens to the radio, and if he finds a fire in a neighboring district in California’s Napa Valley, he’ll head there. If he can’t, he’ll stay on the road until his mind settles. That’s most nights now in the summer and fall.
Watson counts among the traumatized firefighters battling the last decade’s grueling blazes in the American West.
He’s responsible for three stations in his Northern California district for Cal Fire, the state agency that protects 31 million acres of wildlands across California and assists local governments with emergency services.
Three years ago, he couldn’t prevent a monumental wildfire from destroying his hometown, Paradise, California. Nothing has been the same for him since.
In November 2018, Butte County, home to Paradise, was in the throes of drought and the winds were ripping when a malfunctioning power line sparked a fire that blew across the mountainous region. Eighteen days later, the fire had killed 85 people, charred 153,336 acres and razed more than 18,000 structures.
The blaze became a symbol of the West’s longer, more destructive wildfire seasons. According to the federal government, wildfires burned more than 10 million acres of land annually three times between 2015 and 2020, well above the last decade’s national average of 6.8 million acres burned. In records dating back to the early 1960s, California counts 15 of its 20 most destructive wildfires as occurring in the last seven years.
Watson, 45, started his life as a firefighter when he was 20 and worked his way up to be a fire captain in Paradise for Cal Fire. He called it his dream job. He said he loved battling a fire, sweating and covered in ash, dirt and dust as he dug trenches with a Pulaski ax to stop the flames.
He felt part of his community: Paradise residents were more than customers – they were his neighbors.
“I loved being there. I looked forward to it,” he said. “Then the Camp Fire happened.”
Paradise was practically obliterated. Almost every home burned. His brother’s home burned. His own childhood home burned.
“That fucked me up, for lack of a classy word,” Watson said.
Firefighting has never been a profession for the weak of heart. Those like Watson, employed year-round, can struggle to navigate their transition from wildfires to the steady rhythms of being on call for structural fires and emergencies. Wildland firefighters, who work on contract in fire season, can find themselves untethered and adrift in their off months from the job.
Climate Fuels Wildfires
Climate change has ratcheted up the pressure: Firefighters face lengthier wildfire seasons, and the blazes, fueled by winds and drought, have devoured forests and rural communities.
Researchers have documented mental health struggles among both wildland and regular firefighters. A study by Florida State University researchers in 2015 reported that nearly half of all firefighters they surveyed said they had experienced suicidal thoughts. A follow-up study three years later found 55% of wildland firefighter respondents exhibited signs of suicide risk, in contrast to 32% of city and town-based firefighters.
New data shared with Reuters by Dr. Irva Hertz-Picciotto, director of the UC Davis Environmental Health Sciences Center, tracked 39 firefighters in the aftermath of massive wildfires in the Napa Valley and Sonoma County in 2017. She found they suffered high rates of depression and anxiety in the first five months after the fires. About 25% reported agitated behavior, 59% reported anxiety or stress, and one-third reported a depressed mood.
Mike Ming, the staff chief of Cal Fire’s Behavioral Health and Wellness Program, says his office is seeing more requests for help from firefighters related to trauma today than it ever has.
Ming, who narrowly averted death when flames trapped him in a canyon in 2017 as a wildfire ravaged his home county, Sonoma, believes the growth in requests is tied to the trust his program has built up with firefighters and “the intensity of what we’ve been seeing over the past three to five years.”
In 2014, the year before California witnessed a spike in fires, his program had 4,544 interactions with firefighters, in which his team conducted outreach or fielded calls related to mental health, substance abuse, family counseling, medical health and work-related issues; those contacts jumped to 11,136 in 2015; and soared to 18,976 in 2017. In 2018, the program had 14, 922 contacts with firefighters; in 2019, a year that saw a less intense fire season, the numbers slipped to 8,455, before rising again in 2020 to 12,474 as the state confronted more fires.
Shawna Powell, one of the heads of peer support until she retired from Cal Fire in mid-September, sees the strain of longer, more damaging fire seasons.
“You put your heart and soul into trying to save a couple houses out there, and you watch them burn because of the wind and the fire,” Powell said. “You do that time after time, it’s a disheartening experience. You can’t unsee that.”
The U.S. Forest Service, which has more than 10,000 professional firefighters on its payroll, told Reuters it has begun overhauling its mental health services for wildland firefighters this year. It said it has hired a nationwide contractor for counseling that has “trauma trained clinicians” with experience working with law enforcement and firefighters.
The Forest Service said that the federal government needs to start developing an adequate mental health support system for wildland fighters. Until now, the service said, the government hadn’t recognized the mental and emotional risks they faced.
“The increased length and intensity of fire seasons has certainly created an increased risk to the mental and emotional health of wildland firefighters,” the Forest Service said in a written statement.
The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, a nonprofit group recognized by the firefighting community nationally as the most reliable tracker of suicides, shared with Reuters its data on wildland firefighter suicides. The alliance has tracked 50 suicides of wildland firefighters since 2008, with 34 of the deaths occurring since 2015. The highest concentration of suicides has been among firefighters in California, with 18 deaths, it said.
Jeff Dill, who runs the alliance, has conducted mental health training sessions for wildland and city firefighters for a decade. After returning to school for a counseling degree, which he received in 2010, he began consulting fire departments on setting up their own counseling programs and their chaplains and therapists on the difficulties firefighters faced.
He talked to departments about what he termed “a cultural brainwashing” inside the firefighting world, where people didn’t share what they were going through. He’d lead classes where department chiefs and therapists and chaplains role-played scenarios of firefighters who were suicidal or depressed, struggling with addiction or battling post-traumatic stress disorder.
In 2017, he said, he took to the road conducting seminars around the country. He crossed California and Oregon and met wildland fighters who were suddenly battling wildfires that swept into towns. When he visited some of the stations, “men stood in front of me in tears and said, ‘Look at this: Everything around us is burned.'”
Riva Duncan, a longtime U.S. Forest Service firefighter, also serves as executive secretary of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an advocacy group for the profession. She said she saw more of her peers seek counseling last year after they witnessed fires that destroyed communities in Oregon.
Duncan, who served in the Forest Service for three decades, says she experienced her first panic attack about 10 years ago. Driving on the highway in Tennessee to see her mom, her heart started racing and she pulled over. She described it as the beginning of her grappling with the toll from her job. Duncan started fighting wildland fires in the summer of 1994, when the fire crew she worked on in Pennsylvania was assigned to battle blazes out West, jumping from fire to fire in Washington and Idaho. Duncan loved the adventure.
But the strain of the work grew. In the 2000s, she worked as a deputy forest fire chief in the Klamath National Forest in Northern California. There, three colleagues died in road accidents, another three died in helicopter crashes, and a water truck ran over a female firefighter, crushing her to death as she slept in a sleeping bag.
Duncan sought a quieter job as a Forest Service officer in North Carolina, but eventually the memories and loss piled on. She found herself growing angry over little things, and then the panic attacks hit. Duncan sought a therapist who diagnosed her as suffering from PTSD.
Since seeking help for her PTSD in 2014, Duncan has spoken up publicly about mental health issues for firefighters. In September 2020, the Archie Creek fire in northern Oregon raged over 120,000 acres and destroyed 109 buildings. After the blaze, a fellow firefighter – struggling with a personal crisis – confessed to suicidal thoughts. She and her colleagues contacted a crisis team to provide him immediate counseling.
“These fires are just burning so crazy and so fast and so hot,” said Duncan, who retired as a full-time Forest Service employee in January and now works fires on a contract basis for the federal government in New Mexico. “There’s a sense of hopelessness.”
Tragedy in Paradise
Certain memories stick with Watson from the first days of the Paradise blaze. Clouds of smoke blackened the horizon, and glowing red embers rained down; flames licked up trees.
As he and two other firefighters headed into town in his fire engine, he called his mom at her house in Paradise and told her, “Things are different; take whatever you can, and leave.” If he had known they would never see their family home again, he thinks, he would have told her to take more items: some photos of road trips and reunions; pictures of friends, cousins and grandmothers and great-aunts who have passed away. “Those are gone,” he said.
His body jolted at the sound of a car speeding by and the flash of a headlight that flickered in the darkness. He worried aloud: “We are going to kill someone.”
He and his two colleagues marched to a cul-du-sac through the amber haze. They started sawing and axing porches, patios, fences, tossing furniture and clearing leaves – removing anything flammable and heaving it away.
His bosses ordered his team to join fire crews trying to salvage the town’s hospital. He battled to save the maternity ward, where his three children were born. They tore down fencing and managed to protect the wing.
The next day, they drove through the town’s main roadways. Where there were once thick pine groves, now there were charred stumps, ash and smoldering ruins. Downed power lines and scorched metallic husks of vehicles littered the roadside. Only later did he learn that bodies lay in some of the cars. He expressed relief his crew didn’t discover the bodies, because it would have been “one more image you can’t scrape out of your brain.”
He drove to his mother’s house.
His childhood home was now an empty lot, strewn with metal beams, shattered concrete, dented sheet metal and the blasted-out frame of a corner wall where the laundry room had been. He recognized his mother’s woodstove, half-melted and flipped over.
“I just didn’t have the capacity to take it in. It was almost like you were dreaming, like, is this real; did this really happen?”
Watson spent the next month helping search for bodies. He and his team knew Paradise: where people lived, which places were nursing homes, retirement communities or places where handicapped people lived.
If there were corpses, Watson wanted to find them so that when Paradise reopened, he could spare people finding a dead relative. At the end of each day, his spirits deflated. Only once did he find any human remains.
In December, the incinerated town opened to the public. Watson went to work, but he couldn’t handle seeing his childhood community. He thought about the few houses they saved that first morning of the fire and all the buildings they passed in the smoke and flame that had been destroyed.
He’d stay inside his fire station, inspect equipment or sit in his office with the blinds drawn. He only went on fire calls at night so he didn’t have to look at Paradise. He became ashamed of himself and started looking to transfer.
Watson described himself as acting like “an absolute monster” at home with his wife and children, shouting at her for no reason.
In the spring of 2019, he transferred to Gridley at the southern end of Butte County, but it wasn’t far enough away. That July, Watson found a new job as a battalion chief in Cal Fire’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit, 105 miles away. He said, as part of their fresh slate, his wife wanted to leave California. Watson said he would do whatever she wanted. They found a home in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, and he would commute to his Cal Fire unit.
After the transfer, he recalled, he had a 48-hour break from work that August and called his wife, excited to be coming home to spend time with his family. Instead, within 30 seconds, he said, he was shouting at his wife about her scheduling plans with their neighbors. He hung up the phone and realized something was seriously wrong and he couldn’t fix it alone. He rang Cal Fire.
Cal Fire arranged for Watson to attend a four-day retreat the next month with a therapist specialized in PTSD in Idaho. Driving to the course, Watson wanted to back out. At a gas station, Watson fantasized about being run over by a car in the parking lot. Then he’d be hospitalized and have a good excuse not to attend the retreat.
But he kept driving.
At the retreat, he met police officers, firefighters and first responders, people like him. There were around eight of them. They sat in sessions that lasted from morning until night – what Watson called “brain banging.” He said he learned that his brain was divided between a “rational” and “emotional” side. The therapists taught him that when his anger welled up, he could find his way back to his rational brain.
Today, Watson said, he is trying to be a loving human being at home and a model for his two sons and daughter. He worries that all he taught them is anger. He senses his wife is always bracing for his old “verbal jujitsu monster” to show up. But Watson said he has tools to cope now. If he sees himself losing his temper, he asks for a few minutes to regain his composure.
“Hopefully, one day, I’ll get past it,” he said. “One day I’ll move on.”
Paradise calls him still. On his 45th birthday, six days before the third anniversary of the fire, he returned for a visit.
“I don’t know how to shake it,” he said. “Like I’m continuously drawn there, but it’s heartbreaking every time.”
He passed the street where he saved a dozen homes the first day of the fire and wondered who lives there now. He passed the main hospital building, which is still shuttered. He headed to his mother’s empty property; he wanted to be surrounded by his childhood birthday memories, but standing on the grounds, he couldn’t bear it.
“I just wanted to be home,” he said, searching for words to describe his ambivalence. “Maybe I just want to drive up there and just all of a sudden everything will just be the way it was.”
(Reporting by Ned Parker, editing by Kari Howard)
Top Photo: A neighborhood destroyed by the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., in 2018. Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
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