There are more than 30,000 people who fight wildfires in the U.S., and about 400 firefighters have died on the job over the last two decades. As fire seasons get longer and fires become more devastating, the physical and mental toll on firefighters themselves is also growing. Learn more now on Episode 05: Burnout.
- Brent Ruby is a professor at the University of Montana and the director of the Montana Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism
- Dan Cottrell is the training foreman at the Missoula Smokejumper Base.
- Nelda St. Claire is a former National Critical Incident Stress Program Manager for the Bureau of Land Management
Transcript and links:
Justin Angle Previously, on Fireline:
[Tony Incashola Jr.]: “We came back in here to do just a survey, and that’s when we witnessed that this entire prairie was just purple. All the camas came back.”
[Germaine White]: “It’s easy to understand that traditional knowledge of fire should be integrated into fire management practices today. But, man that’s hard to achieve.”
[Jennifer Balch]: “This is me hitting the panic button.”
[Lily Clarke]: “Fire in itself is not an issue. It is only an issue when it begins to threaten human values.”
[John Maclean]: “You talk to the people who have to do the job. And they can tell you a lot about what’s really going on.”
Support for this program comes from Berkshire Hathaway’s Homeservices Montana Properties, First Security Bank, Blackfoot Communications, and A New Angle podcast.
[Victor Yvellez]: “I don’t know if Justin mentioned this to you, but, your book… Do you have a copy of that around?”
[Brent Ruby]: “You know, I, I do. I have, I was looking at it this morning. This is the only copy thus far.”
Justin Angle Our producer Victor and I are with Brent Ruby. He’s a bit of a Brent of all trades. He’s a professor at the University of Montana, he’s a competitive triathlete, and then there’s this book1.
It’s a kids’ book, and he came up with the idea a little over a year ago, when he was on a hike on Missoula’s Mount Sentinel.
[Brent Ruby]: “I have these two border collies named Wrango and Banjo wranglers, the older one, and banjos the pup, and they’re running around running around on Mount Sentinel, as they always do on these big hikes and stuff. And I thought, man. Crazy thought, what if these guys were part of a fire crew? What if they ran the fire crew?”
“The term for these elite fire crews as Hot Shots, and I thought it would be really funny if they were the hot dogs.”
Justin Angle The name of the book? Wrango and Banjo on the Fireline. The cover’s pastel blue, and shows the titular animals hiking through a vibrant forest and digging line with a pulaski.
The firefighting piece of the idea didn’t just come out of the ether. Brent’s an exercise scientist, and has spent decades at fire camps2, getting to know firefighters and their world. That day, he went home, inspired, and got to writing. He conjured this whole world of canine firefighters, meant to help kids learn about wildland fire.
[Brent Ruby]: “Wrango is the crew boss. Banjo Course is one of the rookies. And so the storyline goes off just as the Normal Kids book would.”
Justin Angle He funded the project with a Kickstarter, and made folksy promotional YouTube videos to get people excited.
[Kickstarter video]: “Hi I’m Brent Ruby. I’m here in Missoula, Montana. I’ve got Wrango and Banjo here. We’re in Missoula right now! If you look over this way, that is the Missoula Valley down over that way. That’s the home of the Zootown Hot Dogs…”
Justin Angle He picks up an early copy of the book, and reads us a passage. [Brent Ruby]: “The sun came up over Mount Sentinel as Rango tightened his laces and took a deep breath. The radio crackled in the back office of the Zootown hot dog fire station, barking weather reports for the Northern Rockies Region five. The fire danger had been on the rise in the southwest…”
Justin Angle I’m Justin Angle, and welcome to Fireline: a series about what wildfire means for the West, our planet, and our way of life.
Wrango and Banjo and the Zootown Hot Dogs offer a fun glimpse into what can be a really serious job.
There are more than 30 thousand people who fight wildfires in the U.S.3 And there have been about 400 deaths on the job over the last two decades4. Plus, all that smoke inhalation and physical labor on the fireline can have lasting health impacts. But there’s a bigger picture, too. As we see more devastating fires and fire seasons getting longer and longer, the toll the job takes on firefighters is also growing.
So, what does the West’s increasingly fiery reality mean for the people doing the work on the ground?
This is Episode 5: Burnout.
Justin Angle Close your eyes. Imagine the wildland firefighter.
It’s the height of summer. 100 degrees. But you’re wearing a long sleeve shirt and heavy Carhartts, with kevlar pants over them to protect your legs from the sharp teeth of your chainsaw5. You got four hours of sleep last night. The most in a few days. You don’t have cell service and you haven’t seen your friends or family in a week. You’re covered head to toe in dirt and ash.
In the afternoon, you get to put the saw down for a bit. Now you’re digging line. With a Pulaski and a rake-like tool called a McLeod6, you’re scraping and scraping and scraping at the soil. Smoke is everywhere.
Your whole world is ash and sweat, and… the one other thing on your mind: you’re getting hungry.
Brent Ruby Hot Shots have issues with the food, sometimes. They have issues being away from their families, a lot of times they have stress that develops because of that. There’s issues with periodic smoke inhalation, there’s compromise sleep. And so you take all of those things and you pack them into a snowball and you throw it right at them day after day after day. And some days the nutrition is going to reach to the point of boiling over. Some days the stress is going to get to them, some days the sleep is going to get to them. All those stresses pooled together
creates this sort of composite overarching stress.
Justin Angle Brent should know. He’s been studying wildland firefighters — and all the factors that drain them of their physical and mental energy — since long before he started that kids’ book about the Zootown Hot Dogs. He started looking at nutrition on the fireline in the mid-90s7. At the time, nutrition studies mostly focused on groups like athletes — but Brent argued that firefighters were a good proxy for soldiers, and got a big grant from the Department of Defense.
In a high-intensity job like firefighting, what you eat, how much of it, and when, can have a huge impact on your decision-making, your attitude, your energy8.
To find out more about what these factors can mean when the stakes are so high, I met up with Brent in his workshop.
[Brent Ruby]: “I’ve done all kinds of different weird art projects in here over the years.”
Justin Angle — where he’s building by hand an ornate, wooden standup paddle board.
[Brent Ruby]: “Once I get this filled in, which is just tedious angle cuts and everything with these tiny little saws, nothing is done with a power tool…”
Justin Angle He doesn’t like doing things the easy way. That applies to his work with firefighters too.
[Brent Ruby]: “When I first started developing an interest in studying these guys, I didn’t want to just put some monitors on them and say, gosh, this is a hard job or it’s not that hard or they get hot or they there are rate is high in the afternoon or whatever. I thought I want to get to the root-root of the problem.”
Justin Angle That was a problem of energy. If firefighters are using a lot more than they’re taking in, some serious health risks can emerge9. So he wanted to figure out exactly how much energy firefighters were using in a given day. To do that, you have to use these things called tracers10.
[Brent Ruby]: “They’re delivered orally. You measure them out real specifically, and then they’re their natural occurring isotopes. They’re not radioactive isotopes. So there’s no risk. basically they label the total body water pool.” Justin Angle Analyzing the tracers, Brent can find out how much oxygen the body is consuming throughout the day, and how much carbon dioxide it’s producing. Put that ratio together, and you get energy11.
Most past studies on this had taken place in the lab. But that’s not how Brent thought it should be done.
[Brent Ruby]: “We wanted it to be a week or three days or five days or seven days of actual fireline tasks on actual assignments, not pretend, not on a not training, not on a prescribed burn, but on a real, real burner, a real fire.”Justin Angle But that field setting means a lot of logistical challenges— like getting exhausted firefighters on board to put up with all the tests.
[Brent Ruby]: “They were patient with a lot of our methods, which I mean, we’re like, here, take this. It’ll tell us your body temperature all day long. You’ll eventually poop it out. Here, take these tracers. Oh, let’s give urine samples. Let’s get blood samples. Let’s take saliva samples. Nude body weight again this morning.”
Justin Angle But Brent prevailed. His first big study on all this came out in 200212.
[Brent Ruby]: “What we uncovered was that the energy demands of the job is really around 4000 to 7000 calories per day13.”
Justin Angle There’s of course a lot of variation — but 4,000 to 7,000 calories a day. That’s two to three times more than the average person14.
Brent said the bottom line is that firefighting is hard and unforgiving work. That energy expenditure is just a starting point, giving rise to a boatload more questions: How do you get firefighters more calories out in the backcountry, and how do you do that throughout the day, not just in pulses at mealtimes?
So this was just the start of Brent’s research. He calls himself a —
[Brent Ruby]: “Johnny Appleseed Wildland fire physiologist evangelist of sorts…”
Justin Angle Touring the country, going from fire camp to fire camp.
[Brent Ruby]: “It just, knowledge is freakin power and just knowing what the demands are and knowing how, how a body heats up on the fire line and why it does is power. That saves lives.”
Justin Angle Saving lives. That’s the key thing here. The risks firefighters take every day on the job.
[Dan Cottrell]: “I struggle because I do think there’s inherent risk in what we do.”
Justin Angle This is Dan Cottrell. [Dan Cottrell]: “Firefighters understand and embrace that inherent risk. They’re sure that we try to minimize it and mitigate it, but what we do is there is inherent danger in what we do and there always will be.”
Justin Angle Dan’s been in the wildland firefighting world for more than 20 years.
I met him near a big runway right next to Missoula, Montana’s airport. You’ll hear a little “blip” every few seconds in some of this tape. That’s the air traffic control radar scanning right over us.
[Dan Cottrell]:“I am the training foreman here at the Missoula smokejumper base. Where we are at right now is what we call the aerial fire depot.”
Justin Angle Smokejumpers are the folks that leap out of planes to fight fires15.
[Dan Cottrell]: “Where we are at right now is what we call the aerial fire depot. The Forest Service has a pretty large compound here. And on this twenty five acres or so, there’s our smokejumper facility…”
Justin Angle We’re in the middle of what is pretty fair to call a national hub of wildland firefighting and science.
[Dan Cottrell]:“So we have a fire lab…”
Justin Angle That lab is the kinda place where researchers play with fire tornados and other state of the art technology that helps them learn about fire behavior — and how to make firefighting safer
[Dan Cottrell]: “I forgot, almost forgot about the aviation hangar. So the Forest Service owns and operates a fleet of aircraft and those aircraft are stationed here in Missoula as well…”
Justin Angle Dan’s wearing a jacket with the smokejumper logo stitched on his chest. It shows a pine tree with a parachute over it, inside a stretched out set of wings16. He points to some trees nearby.
[Dan Cottrell]: “It’s funny, when I started jumping, these Ponderosa pines were a lot smaller. That’s when you really know you’ve been doing something too long when the trees start becoming noticeably bigger.”
Justin Angle All that time spent working with firefighters means he has an intimate understanding of safety and risk. In addition to training smokejumpers, Dan’s what’s called an incident commander.
To understand what that means, you have to understand the bigger system the Forest Service has in place for dealing with fires. When a burn begins, the agency has to ask questions like: How many people do we need on the ground? How many airplanes and helicopters and tankers do we need? To figure all this out, they use the same system we use across the country for earthquakes, hurricanes — all kinds of natural disasters17. It’s called the Incident Command System. Under this model, each fire response gets a rating, from one to five.
[Dan Cottrell]: “A type one incident is the very largest complex fire. It’s, you know, the big fires you see on TV. It’s, you know, California had several this year. It’s Hurricane Katrina. It’s, you know, 9/11 attacks18. That’s a type one incident. Hundreds, if not thousands of people responding. Very complex structure on the other end of the extreme as the type five incidents, which might be a single tree.”
Justin Angle So again, type one are the biggest, baddest fires. Type five are the teensiest19. Dan is a type three incident commander. He’s in charge of those middle of the road burns. Right when things are ramping up.
[Dan Cottrell]: “I’m grappling with suppressing the fire, but also briefing incoming resources, organizing a longer term logistical plan for the incident. You know, I might be trying to figure out where people are going to sleep, how I’m going to feed them, and then that’s usually also the incidents where community stakeholders start to get involved.”
Justin Angle Type three fires are that in-between zone, when people and resources are coming in from all over. It’s where things begin to get more complicated.
Even though the variables in each burn are a little bit different, Dan says each and every fire is a learning experience and safety and risk are always top of mind.
That’s especially because certain catastrophic accidents punctuate the history of wildland firefighting.
To name just a few: There’s Mann Gulch in 1949. 13 firefighters died20. South Canyon Fire in Colorado in ‘94. 14 deaths21. Yarnell Hill in 2013. 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots passed away22.
[Dan Cottrell]: “Mann Gulch as well as South Canyon are two fires where smoke jumpers were killed on the fire23, not parachuting, but suppressing the fire, both of those incidents, we, you know, every day, I think about those incidents.”
Justin Angle But in addition to the day-to-day challenges of making sure firefighters stay safe, keeping flames away from communities and property, and coordinating crews from across the country, Dan sees deeper challenges to the profession simmering beneath the surface.
To understand those challenges, he says:
[Dan Cottrell]: “Let’s roll it back to the 1950s or 1960s, 1970s even. The wildland fire used to be a very seasonal event. And the Forest Service responded appropriately. They built the firefighting apparatus around a seasonal workforce.”
Justin Angle As the climate warms, that seasonality is changing. I’ve said this over and over, but: fire season’s a lot longer than it used to be.
[Dan Cottrell]: “You know, they talk about it not really being a fire season anymore, but a fire year. And I really feel like, especially if you look at the country as a whole, we could employ firefighters every month of the year.”
Justin Angle Working so hard, for so many months, firefighters run the risk of burning out. And Dan says these changes aren’t the Forest Service’s fault. The world is changing faster than the apparatus of government can. Fire season’s getting longer before the agencies in charge can adapt.
[Dan Cottrell]: “The physical and the mental demands of this job have gotten a lot harder. That inevitably affects peoples’ lives.”
If you’re fighting fire for a couple of months a year, your body can recover, your relationships can recover. If you’re fighting fire for 11 months of the year, we start to lose our ability to sort of recuperate from those work stresses. So that’s where I worry about people. I worry about when I hear that guys have been out on assignment, you know, starting in June and they’re still out now in December. Like, I worry about those individuals and whether they can, you know, personally handle that stress load and then recover. Justin Angle That stress load takes a toll that’s both physical and mental. But that emotional side isn’t immediately visible. It’s hard to get reliable statistics on.
Enter Nelda St. Claire. Our editor Nick talked to her on Zoom.
Nick Mott Hey, Nelda!
Nelda St.Claire Hey!
Nick Mott Thanks so much for meeting me today.
Nelda St.Claire Hey, no problem, you got me?
Nick Mott I got you. I can see you just fine…
Justin Angle Nelda grew up just outside Yellowstone National Park in a firefighting family.
Nick Mott What made you become a firefighter in the first place?
Nelda St.Claire Because my dad told me not to. True story.
Nick Mott I’ve done a lot of things for the same reason.
Nelda St.Claire He worked for the Forest Service and he loved it. He loved it. And it’s all I really knew was the beautiful places we got to live. And so my first job was with the Forest Service and I didn’t really have a plan. I wasn’t really a fan of school. And so, for a few years it was just like fire in the summertime ski or go to Mexico in the wintertime. It just stuck.
Justin Angle She means like, really stuck. She recently retired from more than four decades in the business.
Nick Mott I want to talk a little bit about your own journey to // addressing, you know, this particular part of the firefighting world. Which is, you know, mental health and trauma and things like that, tell me // how you came to understand this as an issue personally.Nelda St.Claire My dad was a wildland firefighter, and I can remember listening to the radio when I was a child at the radio station and overhearing burnovers, —
Justin Angle That’s when a fire runs and overtakes firefighters on the ground.
Nelda St.Claire — air tanker crashes. And then in 40 years, of course, I experienced trauma and witnessed burnovers, fatalities of my friends and people I didn’t know. And in the early 2000s, I was involved in a critical incident that was the shelter deployment.
Justin Angle Scientists have learned a lot about how fires behave in places like that Fire Lab in missoula. But still, many factors are difficult to predict. A sudden change in wind, for example, can mean a safe zone is no longer safe.
So firefighters carry lightweight shelters made mostly of reflective foil24 that they wrap themselves in like a sleeping bag as a last resort if a fire comes charging too near25. A shelter deployment can save lives from the heat and gases of fire when all other hope seems lost26. But waiting it out in that tiny, claustrophobic shelter is a terrifying experience.
After Nelda’s shelter deployment, her crew received a service meant for people who have been through a traumatic experience.
One thing I’ve learned putting together this podcast is that the wildland fire world is full of inelegant acronyms. But this is an important one: That service is called CISM, or Critical Incident Stress Management. It’s meant to manage the mental toll that traumatic events can take27.
Nelda said the fire world is a culture unto itself. And anybody dealing with the mental health needs of firefitghersfighters needs to be of that world. But the people sent in to provide her with CISM services about two decades ago didn’t know anything about the culture of firefighters.
Nelda St.Claire And just their lack of knowledge of the culture was offensive. And I think it did more harm than good. In fact, it was more psychologically traumatizing than the incident itself.
Justin Angle Nelda says one aspect of fire culture is toughness: the ability to cope with anything that gets thrown at you. To shrug it off. To barely acknowledge it. Working long hours digging line, toughness is an asset.
But she says that trait can mean shrugging off mental issues, just like physical ones. It can amplify the already existing stigma of talking openly about this stuff.
Nick Mott Did you personally find it hard to talk about and to acknowledge the mental toll that that event had taken?
Nelda St.Claire We didn’t talk about it, somebody might think you’re crazy or weak or that you couldn’t do the job. You didn’t talk about it.
Justin Angle Nelda’s first experience with CISM planted a seed that would blossom in the years to come. Nelda herself started working part-time in crisis intervention in the early 2000s, and it became her full-time job in 2015.
Nelda St.Claire During the last four years of my career, I was the National Critical Incident Stress Management Coordinator for the BLM and the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.
Justin Angle The National Interagency Fire Center – the nucleus of fire response across the country – has another one of those oh-so-wonderful acronyms I just mentioned: NIFC.
Point is, she saw how all the federal agencies responded to firefighter trauma from the highest level. And she wanted that response to have more of a cultural connection to the people on the ground. And to make that happen, she needed to learn a little more. In those four decades working for the feds, Nelda learned the value of data. She started keeping track of all the CISM requests for firefighters.
Nelda St.Claire I’ve kept it myself. It’s not public knowledge.
Justin Angle And eventually, she started keeping track of one number in particular: suicides among wildland firefighters.
It had long been assumed that firefighters took their own lives at a much higher rate than the rest of the population28. But there were no numbers to back up what the community was experiencing.Nelda St.Claire I created kind of a separate database so that I could look at the suicide, validate it. And with that, I tracked their job, their number of years of fire with what they did. I also found it was important to track whether or not they were military veterans. I tracked causal factors and then how they died by suicide.
Justin Angle This is not some official agency statistic. This is something that Nelda, alone, kept track of. Because she understood its importance. The numbers are unofficial and incomplete. They’re only suicides she can confirm. That get reported.
The story those numbers told was dramatic. There was a huge spike, she says:
Nelda St.Claire From 2010 until about 2018.
Justin Angle Numbers went as high as 30 in 2015. 22 the year after. Those numbers are conservatively 10 times higher than in the general population29.
Nelda St.Claire When we start to see mental health problems and post-traumatic stress related illnesses. It’s often not tied to a single incident, it’s tied to a series of incidents and after the last three years, the exposure to human suffering that we’ve seen in California, the Pacific Northwest and other places. And we’ve had three seasons of that back to back. And really it goes all year long. Now, there really isn’t an off season, and so the stress becomes cumulative.Justin Angle When I heard Nelda say this, I was really alarmed. I expected those 2015 numbers would’ve ballooned even higher after these last few seasons. But Nelda said according to her numbers, that’s not what happened.
Nelda St.Claire We’ve worked really hard to reduce stigma, and especially with the younger generation, there’s not as much stigma. We see, have seen an increase in calls, in crisis call centers. Huge increase. But we have seen a decrease in suicide.
Justin Angle Last year, she counted five suicides. The year before, even fewer. But — more people calling in to address their troubles.
It’s important to point out: these numbers don’t say that this story is over. It could be a fluke. Things could change in the years to come.
What it does say is that maybe firefighters, as a whole, are getting a little more open. Talking more freely. Feeling less isolated, more understood.
Nelda St.Claire Talking helps. I learned that with my own traumas, talking helps.
Justin Angle Here’s one example. Mike West, a 17-year veteran firefighter posted a public letter of resignation last summer. It got a lot of attention online.
[letter orator]: “In my career, I was almost burned over four times. I came within a few feet of being killed by a falling tree on two occasions. I’ve had a few close calls with vehicles, helicopters, rolling objects, and a large angry bear.”
Justin Angle In the letter, he said the Forest Service has gotten pretty good at attending to physical injuries in the field.
[letter orator]: “That being said, nothing has been more of a threat to my life than the symptoms of PTSD.”
Justin Angle Mental health, he wrote, is another story.
[letter orator]: “From day one we are taught so much about the prevention of fireline fatalities. There should be more information on how to recognize and prevent mental health casualties.”
Justin Angle He means not only suicide – but also things like alcoholism and depression.
He encouraged firefighters reading the letter not to be embarrassed about the mental and emotional struggles they may be having. He said firefighters are getting more open. But there are still too many who stay quiet.
[letter orator]: “I hate to say this, but I’m more concerned I’ll lose a friend to a mental health issue than to another fireline fatality.”
Justin Angle He wrote that he hopes the letter will resonate with even one person, somebody like himself — who might feel less alone to know others are going through the same things. And despite his struggles with PTSD, he was clear he had a positive experience overall in the Forest Service, full of laughter and learning. Stuff he’ll carry with him in his next career move, as he steps into the world of teaching.
[letter orator]: “Don’t worry about me. I’ve got things figured out and I’m excited to move on with my new life.”
[Brent Ruby]: “Hey Wrango, Banjo come here!”
Justin Angle Wildland fire physiologist slash kids book author Brent Ruby is wrangling his dogs so we can meet the stars of his book in real life.
[Brent Ruby]: “That’s Wrango, he is eleven. And then, Banjo is, has just turned three. Or, not quite yet.”
Justin Angle As Brent wrote, and the firefighting literary versions of Wrango and Banjo became a reality, Brent started to imagine his audience. He pictured firefighters themselves reading the book — and sharing it with their loved ones.
[Brent Ruby]: “I guess I have this vision of these firefighter families taking this book and reading it with their kids. But this is, it’s grown up enough that a kid, as they get a little bit older, can hopefully revisit it and then uncover some of the other little hidden things, like some of the science or some of the things that go in the pack. And maybe they’ll get fired up about what a compass does and learn all about navigation. And, who knows..?”
Justin Angle He sees the book as a source of inspiration and wonder. But in those years talking with firefighters, going from camp to camp, he began to understand their internal battles, too— not just the physiological ones. And writing his book opened a door to that world.
[Brent Ruby]: “I felt like this project gave me a new sort of path to, and I don’t know, maybe it’s idealistic or I don’t know how to explain it, but I thought, gosh, you know, a firefighter there, they’re these they’re just these wonderful characters. But they have chinks in their armor like every other mom or dad or aunt or uncle or grandparent or whatever. And they have difficulty communicating with the littles in their lives like we all do.”
Justin Angle The book is meant to start those tough conversations. It’s meant to be read out loud, together. In a communal experience.
[Brent Ruby]: “The fire danger had been on the rise in the Southwest and across the Great Basin. Hearing the weather report, Wrango looked over his crew list, smiled and began to wag his tail. Wango’s the new crew boss for the zoo town Hot Dogs, one of the top fire crews in the country that protects the little mountain town of Missoula, Montana.
However, hot dogs also travel wherever fires happen in the forests. Hot dogs are the first in and last out…”
[Voice 1]: “There are no examples of us, as a society, saying, ‘you cannot develop there because of wildfire risk’.”
[Voice 2]: “To have lost a home, had a very different connection to it all of a sudden. I was like, oh man…”
[Voice 3]: “I think we’re all waiting for that transformational event that will be like, ‘woah! We’re kind of fuckin’ this up. We’ve got to be doing things better’.”
Justin Angle That’s next time, on Fireline.
Victor Yvellez Fireline is hosted by Justin Angle. Writing, editing, and production is by Nick Mott and me, Victor Yvellez. Our fact checking is by Aj Williams. Original theme music is by Travis Yost with additional music from Blue Dot Sessions. And our cover art is by Jessy Stevenson.
Additional support for this program comes from Montana Public Radio, United Way of Missoula County, and the Trailhead. Narration recorded at Studio 49 at the University of Montana’s College of Business.
Special thanks to Brent Ruby, Dan Cottrell, Nelda St.Claire, and Josh Burnham for his reading of Mike West’s letter.