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Wildland firefighters struggle in the sudden silence of the off-season

Cecilio Ricardo
U.S. Forest Service

This is the first story in a Mountain West News Bureau two-part series on wildland firefighters' mental health. Find the second story here.

For almost 20 years, Luke Mayfield was a wildland firefighter. And for several of those seasons, he was part of a hotshot crew. Those highly trained groups take on difficult and dangerous assignments – often on the hottest part of a fire.

"I would still like to think I'm a hotshot," Mayfield says. "I wear a hotshot belt buckle every day. My hotshot belt buckles are the one thing that I hope my daughter gets when I'm no longer walking around on this earth."

Belt buckles are part of hotshot culture. They’re only awarded to hotshots who have finished two or three seasons. But when Mayfield looks at them sitting on a shelf at home in Bozeman, Mont., it’s with a mix of emotions.

"It's the most gratifying job I'll ever have," he says. "But it's also a job that made me contemplate suicide and think that my family was better off with a life insurance check than being around what turned into seasonal depression."

Mayfield says several things made life difficult, including low wages that were a strain on his family. But much of his anguish emerged in the sudden quiet of the off-season, when he suffered anxiety attacks.

"Those things became more and more common if I wasn't on a fire, if I wasn't in some kind of high-tempo operational setting," he says. "I don't know, it was messed up."

Mental health struggles are an occupational hazard for wildland firefighters. It’s dangerous, demanding, high-stakes work, and it’s hard to maintain the emotional support of friends and family. You’re away for weeks at a time, often in places without phone service.

Ben Elkind's been there.

"It's really tough," he says. "I mean, this year, coming back from a couple of different fire assignments, you know, I've got a kid and he just turned one. He didn't even recognize me after being gone for 20 days or so."

Elkind, who's based in Portland, Ore., just finished his 14th season as a wildland firefighter. He says having a family and a home to return to makes it easier to transition to the off-season. But for many others, the transience of the job, and abruptly severing bonds with fellow firefighters come fall, can be jarring.

"Everybody just kind of like, scatters, you know? And so it's difficult mentally to flip that switch, and then to figure out what you're supposed to do next," he says.

That’s something that Taylor Hess is dealing with back home in Missoula, Mont. It’s that odd time between seasons – all the leaves have fallen off the trees, but without any snow on the ground, it’s not ski season, either.

"It's so hard to go from everything to nothing all at once," Hess says. "And so it's really important to have something to look forward to every day. Because otherwise, it's like, ‘Well, I have nothing going on today, so why would I even like get out of bed?’"

Each day in the fall, Hess walks from her house to the gym to lift weights. The exercise routine became a way to handle stress beginning in 2017, after her first wildfire season. That stress has only mounted. She’s been on a fire where a firefighter died. After that particular season, she had to jump right into her senior year of college.

"It was a lot of pressure to still be, like, kind of with it," she said. "But it was really, really hard to find time to focus and get in a rhythm where things were OK. It just felt like chaos."

At the time, Hess had access to counseling through Michigan State University. But she's no longer a student, and firefighting hasn't offered her the same access to mental health services. That’s because health insurance for all contract wildland firefighters like her runs out shortly after the season ends.

"There are a lot of lingering mental health issues, not just for me, but for so many people," she said.

Help may be on the way for Hess, Ben Elkind and their fellow wildland firefighters. The new federal infrastructure package, beyond giving firefighters raises, calls for creating mental health programs for them.

Advocates say that's a step in the right direction. Now they’re pushing for another broad piece of legislation: Tim Hart’s bill. It includes much more specific plans to address mental health – and would fund them permanently. The bill is named after a smokejumper from Wyoming who died in early June after sustaining injuries while fighting a fire in New Mexico.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Maggie Mullen is Wyoming Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. Her work has aired on NPR, Marketplace, Science Friday, and Here and Now. She was awarded a 2019 regional Edward R. Murrow Award for her story on the Black 14.
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