By Heather Hansman, The Atlantic
Nelda St. Clair keeps an unofficial list: 22 last year, 30 the year before. Sixteen suicides among wildland firefighters this year already, although St. Clair points out there tends to be a spike after fire season, which has dragged on long this year. “Suicide rates have become astronomical,” she says. “And those are just the ones we know of.”
Over the past decade, there’s been a quiet acknowledgement within America’s firefighting community that suicide is widespread, and that there are still probably many cases that haven’t been reported. As the numbers grow, so too does the concern that the tough, pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps wildland firefighters—the men and women who fight fires in vegetation instead of buildings—are at risk. That’s why St. Clair, a manager for the Bureau of Land Management wildland-fire department’s Critical Incident Stress-Management Program, is keeping track. She believes that quantifying the problem can help people talk about its causes.
In addition to its length, this brutal fire season is already the most expensive on record. The Tubbs fire that ripped through Sonoma County in October was the most destructive in California’s history, and almost 9 million acres have burned across the country, nearly a third more than the 10-year U.S. average. According to the U.S. Forest Service, at the peak of fire there were three times more uncontained large fires than average, and almost three times as many people working them.