The morning sun warms California’s high desert, launching a clear spring day. Behind high walls at The Nurturing Nest, across from a burbling mineral pool, a small group of men and women roll up yoga mats and arrange themselves in a semicircle. Their week at this tranquil retreat is ending and a counselor seeks final thoughts from each of them.
“Why are you here?” the counselor asks a young woman sitting alone on a small sofa, hugging a pillow to her chest. She stares into the middle distance and lets out a deep breath.
“Death. So many deaths,” she said.
The men and women at the retreat are steeped in death: All but one work for Cal Fire, dispatched to the desert as a last resort, seeking release from the neverending pain and fatigue brought on by their jobs.
Defensive and defiant at the beginning of the week, the California firefighters and a dispatcher break down their emotional walls by the end of it, laughing, weeping and recounting once-secret stories about death, terror and fire. They recall horrific sights of friends trapped by flames and reveal their urges to take their own lives.
For firefighters battling California wildfires, these emotional injuries are a workplace hazard. Longer and more intense fire seasons have taken a visible toll on the state, leaving a tableau of charred forests and flattened towns. But they’ve also fueled a silent mental health crisis, including an alarming rise in post-traumatic stress disorder among the ranks of Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting service.
Fifty-four California firefighters have died in the line of duty since 2006, according to the Cal Fire Benevolent Foundation, and nationally, more than 3,000 firefighters have died from job-related injuries and illnesses since 1990.
But when they race into wildfires, it’s not just their bodies that are at risk, but their psyches, too. Wildland firefighters arguably face more psychological stress than most, since their battles are prolonged and their personal risks are high.
“I would be willing to bet that there’s suicidal ideation in half of our employees right now, and half of them have a plan to do it,” said Cal Fire Captain Mike Orton, a former Marine who recently transferred to a Los Angeles County inmate fire camp.
CalMatters interviewed several dozen California firefighters — including many high-ranking battalion chiefs and captains — as well as mental health experts and family members, revealing an expansive and unaddressed problem that suggests a broken and depleted fire service is operating in a state that seems in perpetual combustion.
Firefighters, who in the past were stoic and suffered in silence, told CalMatters their emotional and personal stories, revealing their fears that their lack of sleep, long hours and stress could lead to poor decisions on the fire lines — which would endanger not just their crews, but the public, too, as California’s wildfires intensify.