Fire­fight­ers weary, with ‘no end in sight’

Lit­tle rest amid the bat­tles of a har­row­ing fire sea­son

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Mal­lory Moench

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.”

Pho­tos by Brit­tany Hosea-Small / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

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.

Pho­tos by Brit­tany Hosea-Small / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

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.

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