Firefighters weary, with ‘no end in sight’
Little rest amid the battles of a harrowing fire season
Firefighter Justin Silvera worked 72 days straight in 2018, when the Camp Fire destroyed his Butte County hometown of Paradise. Seven of his family members lost homes. It took a toll, exhausting him more than anything in his twodecade career.
But he’s even more worried about this fire season.
“It’s on track for being the worst year I’ve ever experienced,” Silvera, a Cal Fire battalion chief in Humboldt County, said on the phone from his hotel last week.
As of Tuesday, Silvera had worked 37 days straight in the CZU Lightning Complex fires in Santa Cruz County. That included one of the most harrowing experiences of his career, when an inferno in Big Basin Redwoods State Park trapped his crew overnight during a 68hour shift.
“It’s stressful,” Silvera, 43, said. “I hope I can continue to keep
everyone safe and get them home.”
It’s been a month since California firefighters started battling historic blazes that have burned more than 3 million acres, with nearly 16,500 firefighters from Cal Fire alone on duty Monday. The unprecedented scope and scale of fires across the state, and COVID19 outbreaks decommissioning some inmate firefighting crews, have stretched resources dangerously thin.
The coronavirus pandemic is also adding mental stress for firefighters with families, as spouses juggle working from home and remote learning for kids. So far this year, two professionals have died while fighting fires. One was a firefighter in the August Complex burning in Tehama, Trinity, Glenn, Lake, Mendocino and Humboldt counties. The other was a contracted pilot in the Hills Fire in Fresno County. As of Monday, Cal Fire said 106 have been injured.
With a couple months of fire season still ahead, many firefighters are already exhausted. The more exhausted — mentally and physically — firefighters become, the more they are at risk of injury. Exhaustion might also hamper crews’ ability to work effectively.
“We’re in an arena of fires getting bigger and faster and more destructive and more deadly,” said Mike Ming, staff chief of Cal Fire’s behavioral health and wellness program. “We have so many fires out there that we are on resource drawdown. So there’s really no choice that we have as far as taking time off or getting home.”
Cal Fire firefighters, who normally work 72 hours and then get four days off, are now working as long as needed. If they’re lucky, they’ll get a night to sleep, still on call, in a hotel. Tim Edwards, president of Cal Fire’s firefighters union Local 2881, said firefighters in the Creek Fire in Fresno and Madera counties worked 96 hours straight, taking turns sleeping in the fire engine.
“We’re pretty resilient,” Ming said, but added that recent experiences have been more traumatic. “The unknown of COVID19, the unknown of not going home, the unknown for your own safety when you’re trying to evacuate people under highstress environments or on the fire line ... those unknowns often burn hotter and brighter in us and affect us with more anxiety and depression and stress,” he said.
Cal Fire provides support services to firefighters and their families — anywhere from 8,000 to 22,000 people, Ming said. The program offers financial and legal services; physical fitness, nutrition and meditation programs; and clinician and substance abuse referrals. It also staffs a 24/7 help line. This year, Ming added 21 staff, but the program is still busier than ever before.
Firefighters said the inadequate staffing in the face of massive fires adds to the stress. Cal Fire firefighter Brian Wanhala, who’s a Local 2881 member, worked an exhausting 72 hours straight during the LNU Lightning Complex fires in and near the North Bay, but when his crew was the only one sent to a burning neighborhood, they lacked enough firefighters to save homes.
Just when his crew thought they’d be sent home with the LNU largely contained, they were deployed to tackle the Oak Fire in Mendocino County, where he’s based.
“There’s no end in sight,” Wanhala, 34, said from his hotel last week after 23 days on the line.
On top of stretched resources, historic heat waves have slowed down firefighting efforts and raised the risk of heatstroke. Also new this year is the coronavirus pandemic, which compounds existing health risks for firefighters.
Past evidence and preliminary research shows that firefighters could be at an increased risk for COVID19 and more likely to get sicker if they do have it, said Kathleen Navarro, a firefighter and research industrial hygienist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Wildland firefighters can’t effectively wear masks or air filters on the line. While they try to social distance, monitor symptoms and get tested, some still worry about bringing the disease home to their families.
“It adds another level of stress,” Silvera said. “I’m not so concerned if I get sick; I’m concerned if I get someone else sick.”
But firefighters said the greatest burden this year, even more than physical concerns, is the mental strain of the pandemic.
“Where I’m getting most of the calls is the stresses, of not just being on the fires and seeing the devastation ... it’s what’s going on back at home,” Edwards said.
The morning after Santa Clara County firefighter Chuck Anderson’s kids started the school year virtually, he called his wife to let her know he was already on his way to the Lake Fire in Los Angeles County.
Anderson, 40, a 17year veteran of the department and thirdgeneration firefighter, said his family has gotten used to his disappearing for a couple of weeks in the fall over the past few years.
But this year, it’s harder. At home, his wife, Kim, has been supervising distance learning for four kids ranging from first grade to high school while starting a new job from home. On nights off in his hotel room, the firefighter’s teenage sons called him for math homework help.
A few days after lightning struck, his unit was sent back to the Bay Area to respond to three major fire complexes. He didn’t come home for more than two weeks.
“We just have to focus on what’s positive and try to help others in need,” Kim Anderson said.
Silvera expects to move to the August Complex fire, the largest in California history, this week. He doesn’t know when he will see his wife of 19 years again, and tries to call her from the fire line just to tell her that he loves her.
“It’s heavy. I think about how much time you miss from your family that you’re not going to get back,” said Silvera.
A member of Local 2881, Silvera said he was grateful for Cal Fire’s mental health services, which he used to speak to a counselor after the Camp Fire, but wanted to see more support for spouses.
“It’s a start, but it’s not nearly enough,” he said. “This job is hard enough as it is.”
Above: Firefighter Chuck Anderson, on a day off, takes a family walk in Moraga with son Kyburz, 6, and daughter Hope, 9. Below: Anderson checks on gear as his shift starts at the Los Gatos Fire Station.
After their morning meeting, Chuck Anderson and his colleagues catch up on the day’s news at the Los Gatos Fire Station.
Anderson and wife Kim at home. A 17year firefighter, Chuck Anderson has been dispatched to fires across the state.