Editor’s note: This post is part of an important conversation about mental health and practitioner burnout. We hope to help breakdown some of the stigmas surrounding mental health in the wildfire practitioner community. Due to the nature of the topic today, we want to issue a content warning for potentially triggering topics: anxiety, burnout, trauma and wildfire loss. We provide resources and helpline information at the end of the post, for anyone looking for support. 

We would like to thank the practitioners who have graciously shared their experiences for this article. Cumulatively, Annie, Chris, Alison and Jennifer have over 75 years of experience working in communities and with wildland fire. Thank you all for sharing your perspectives and experiences with others.

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Burnout, for me, felt like a sneaky thing. It crept up on me while I wasn’t looking.  My attention was elsewhere (specifically, my attention was everywhere other than my own well-being) and before I knew it I was underwater. My first anxiety attack was terrifying. The second was humbling. The third just made me want to cry. I lost count after that. 

Burnout sneaks up on a lot of us in the wildfire profession, whether we are digging line, holding hoses or fostering resilience actions with our conversations and our keyboards. We, as fire adaptation practitioners, are not immune to the mental health challenges inherent to our humanity and heightened by our profession. It is time we join our family in the wildfire response community and have the much needed conversation about stress, burnout and mental health.

A photo of a sky and flowers in a field with a text box overlaid

We tend to think that we, those who work in wildfire but not always in suppression, are not exposed to trauma. After all, we are most often working with people before a fire. We are out in the field, talking to residents and business owners about how to protect themselves and their families. We share our experience and knowledge to support those making home hardening and defensible space decisions. We have conversations with families about what is important and how to prepare for evacuation. We bring go-kit instructions and insurance inventory forms to every appointment. We meet after hours, before hours, at any hour, with anyone who indicates they might be willing to make the shifts needed to become more fire adapted. We are the champions, the relentlessly persistent, and the eternally optimistic. We think if we can just work hard enough, fast enough, connecting with enough people and winning enough hearts, that we will keep our communities from loss. We couldn’t be more wrong. 

All of our passion, sweat and effort cannot eliminate loss.  We can only lessen it.  Wildfire-related losses are inevitable. I am going to say that one more time to make my point crystal clear. Wildfire-related losses are inevitable. The wrong fire on the wrong day, pushed by the wrong winds and ignited by the wrong lightning in the wrong spot, will blow into the wrong community in such a way that no amount of suppression funding poured from the belly of an air tanker can eliminate every loss. We can invest in our forest health, fuel treatments and suppression infrastructure. We can invest in community adaptation, workforce capacity and resilience. We should make those investments. But we are generations behind and today’s investments are not guaranteed to eliminate tomorrow’s loss. Those investments will lessen next decade’s loss… if we are savvy.  What then happens to the champions when they are confronted with this inevitable loss? What happens to the relentlessly persistent as they help communities grapple with smoke impacts, structure loss and the loss of lives and livelihoods?  What happens to the eternally optimistic as they stand on the edge of another community so heavily impacted by wildfire and wonder how to put the pieces back together again? Stress and trauma happen. Mental and physical health impacts happen. Burnout happens.

 

A photo of a mountain with the sun rising behind it and the sky orange, into purple, text is overlaid on the sky

The definition of burnout that resonates the most with me is “a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.” Stephen Kotler, author of “The Art of the Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer”, notes that burnout is the “by-product of repeated and prolonged stress. Not the result of working long hours, rather the result of working long hours under specific conditions: high risk, a lack of sense of control, a misalignment of passion and purpose, and long and uncertain gaps between effort and reward. Unfortunately, these are all conditions that arise during our pursuit of high, hard goals.”  The work we do in community wildfire adaptation can be exactly that. 

We fight the uphill battles for mitigation funding, community capacity support and more equity in community wildfire preparedness, response and recovery. We believe, with our whole hearts, that this work matters, and this work does matter. But we, as people, also matter. Accepting the inevitability of loss is not giving up. It is recognizing that wildfire resilience is complicated and that our actions contribute to better outcomes but, alone, cannot drive them. In other words, it is not on any one of us individually to save the world. If we feel like it is, it is much easier to find yourself exhausted, cynical, and detached. And when you start feeling like this work you have poured your soul into doesn’t matter, that slippery slope down to burnout and chronic stress gets just a little bit steeper. 

The thing about burnout is that even though it sneaks up on people, it isn’t exactly ninja-silent. There are signs. How are you sleeping? How is your energy level?  What about your interactions with your family and co-workers? How is your concentration? When you think about this field season and fire season, what physical reactions happen within your body? Knowing the signs of burnout can help you take action before you are underwater. The other thing about burnout is that it may not be ninja-silent, but it is just as relentlessly persistent as you. If you ignore it, it will not go away. If you double-down and try to muscle through, it will not go away.  Trust me on this one. 

A photo of silhouette of mountains and blue sky with text overlaid on the sky

Almost every conversation I have with wildfire practitioners these days is prefaced with “how are you doing, really?”  As we approach another summer, filled with smoke and loss, but without the emotional capacity many of us had before COVID-19 descended into our lives, having those conversations about how we are really doing is important. We work in a profession that deals in risk every day, in a field that touches trauma all of the time. We need to support each other now more than ever.  Take the time to check-in with your colleagues and employees. Find relationships that can help center your work and keep things in perspective. Above all, find time to manage your stress. I can remember hearing other people say that to me and thinking, quite clearly, “I don’t have time to manage my stress. That is the problem.” And then I promptly returned to my everyday, running on empty routine. I am pretty sure that was the point where my body stopped with the subtle signals and resorted to the heart-pounding, rapid-breathing, trembling anxiety attacks that brought me to my knees. 

I used to think that I was the only one I knew struggling with burnout and anxiety. In those moments, I felt the weight of my community on my shoulders (misplaced, but still) and I felt alone and ashamed. Not a good combination. Climbing out of that place took some help (professional therapists are cool like that) and to be honest, it is still a work in progress. I found some solace in the book “The Mindfulness Solution” by Dr. Ronald Siegel and, most recently, in the book “A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet by Dr. Sarah Jaquette Ray. The David S. Rosenthal Center for Wellness and Health Promotion also has some free guided meditations that I have found helpful. 

As someone who finds such value in community and connection, it also helped me tremendously to know that I was not alone. That is really the purpose of this blog– to tell you that you are not alone. This collective work of lessening our losses is hard but we are in it together. At the end of the day, the work will be there tomorrow. Make sure you are too. 

If you need resources or support:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Free, 24/7 confidential support.  1-800-273-8255 
  • SAMHSA National Helpline:  Call 1-877-SAMHSA7 (1-877-726-4727) to help locate mental health treatment services in your area. The helpline is free, confidential, and operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • The Disaster Distress Helpline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every single day of the year. The helpline can be reached at 1-800-985-5990 or by texting TalkWithUs to 66746.  This hotline is available to anyone (including you) and you can call for yourself or for someone else.
  • The NWCG Mental Health Sub-Committee published a newsletter all about Burnout in January 2021. Several key management strategies are identified, including exercise, delegation, and meditation. 
  • Seek out a mental health professional near you.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Burnout articles and resources:

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