Editor’s note: This post is part of an important conversation about mental health and practitioner wellbeing and contains reflections on the recently concluded Practitioner Wellbeing Learning Group, co-hosted by the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network and the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. Due to the nature of the topic today, we want to issue a content warning for potentially triggering topics: anxiety, depression, trauma, PTSD, and suicide. We provide resources and helpline information at the end of the post, for anyone looking for support. 

Everywhere you turn in the fire community, it seems as though people are talking about the fire workforce. The need to recruit more firefighters in advance of the summer months and the need for living wages to help retain those firefighters are two of the more common refrains. Certainly though, our collective workforce needs are deeper. We have many critical workforce needs: the need for mitigation professionals, capable of helping their communities take individual action to reduce ignition potential; the need for prescribed fire practitioners, able to restore our landscapes with the reapplication of fire; the need for cultural fire practitioners, applying fire holistically, guiding the restoration of  a culture of fire; the need for community-based recovery specialists, willing to help their places navigate the challenges which come after fire; the list goes on. We need more people in all aspects of wildfire. Yet, our workforce needs are deeper still.

What about the workforce we have? It is not enough simply to add people to our systems, particularly if we are losing people from within. It is like putting sand into a bucket with a hole; it is pretty hard to fill the bucket if grains pour from the bottom while you try to keep up. There are holes in our bucket – more than we probably care to admit – and the workforce we have needs us to figure out how to fix them. Practitioners are leaving the field (like people are leaving most fields), positions are difficult to fill, and mental health impacts among wildland fire first responders are well documented. Exposure to trauma, depression, anxiety, and PTSD are all risk factors for suicide. We know the workforce we have is experiencing all of these struggles.

Quote overlaid a calm photo of the ocean

One approach to addressing the holes in the bucket is intentional investments into the wellbeing of our workforce. What do we mean when we say “wellbeing”? One definition is a complex combination of a person’s physical, mental, emotional, and social health factors. This definition goes beyond how much sleep you are getting or how much smoke you are breathing and gets at how you are doing, wholly and completely, as a human being. Wow…are we, as wildfire practitioners or agencies or organizations, really going to take that on? Hard question, simple answer: we must. As we have learned with fire on the landscape, hoping to get lucky does not produce consistent results. 

Traditional approaches to practitioner wellbeing have largely focused on incident-specific triggers or generalized employee assistance hotlines. Many of the former are designed for in-person communication while the latter has typically been most available to members of the federal workforce. What about the workforce we have? Wildfire practitioners are diverse, coming from all parts of the country and with different organizations and connections to fire; some are in suppression (maybe a volunteer fire department from Florida or a federal land management agency from California) while others work on recovery (through a local non-profit or conservation district in Washington). The combinations are endless and the ability to convene in-person is daunting (and COVID-19 only makes it more complicated).  

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center and the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network each work with communities of practitioners and each of us hear the explicit need for more support for practitioner wellbeing. The workforce we have has made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that they need help. Not everyone, and not all of the time…but enough people, enough of the time. We made the decision to co-host a learning group (known as the Practitioner Wellbeing Learning Group) to explore both the systems which contribute to wellbeing challenges and improve personal/community wellbeing.

Working with a licensed mental health practitioner, we crafted a four-session learning arc focusing on the individual (better understanding of ourselves and our responses to stress and trauma), our community (learning skills such as active listening and how to approach trauma-informed communication), our systems (changing the way we think of ourselves as part of the larger whole and how we approach changes within those systems), and our path forward (bringing the threads from throughout the series together). Thirty participants from 11 states were selected to participate in the effort. 

So what did we learn from this process? 

There is a need for this work.  We have a lot of holes in our bucket and the workforce we have desperately wants to stay in the bucket. They are passionate about the work they are doing in their communities – making it all the more impactful to them if they are not well enough to continue in this work. Practitioners are burnt out from our existing system. We can work to change the pay, invest in additional resources, or structure our work environments in a more supportive and sustainable way and we should. The investments made in firefighter pay through the recent Bipartisan Infrastructure Law have been an important start. This action helps patch one hole in the bucket for some people. However, the lack of workforce housing, limited access to health care (including robust mental health care), and the lack of investment in the wellbeing of non-suppression personnel all stress the workforce we have and all represent some of the growing holes in the bucket. 

Photo of broken wooden bucket on a sandy beach.

A bucket, in worse shape than ours, which would struggle to hold sand. Photo credit: “Leftovers” by Kristin Schmit, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Skills matter and can be built. We aren’t all born knowing how to do all things. Some people may instinctively know how to sharpen a chainsaw or thin for defensible space, but they are pretty rare. The skills we need to care for ourselves and each other matter and we can learn, practice, and use them. Skills like active listening help us support our peers and there are ways to practice! Skills like square breathing or progressive relaxation can help ground us in the moment and return us to a healthier mindset. Those skills can also be learned and practiced.  Investing in building skills like those are investments in ourselves and our workforce. 

There are systemic problems, but there are more than systemic solutions. Tackling the big, system-wide issues like housing, healthcare, or equity is daunting. Even though we have systemic problems, our solution set can include more than systemic solutions. Think about our bucket analogy. If you want to keep sand in the bucket you certainly patch the holes but you can also connect the sand. When sand is loose, each grain can slip away from the rest easily. Yet, anyone who has made a sandcastle knows that the right amount of water can help sand stick together. Adding water, cornstarch and dish soap to sand can create even more magical, sticky, “kinetic” sand. If we work to bond the grains of sand together, they are much less likely to slip through whatever holes or cracks we have in our bucket. Investing in connections between practitioners, providing community, teaching skills and peer support, and empowering each other to tend our own (and our collective) wellbeing solidifies the sand. These investments help shift us from individuals to a community, from individual grains to a resilient collective. 

Non-traditional efforts to improve practitioner wellbeing should be explored. The accessibility of remote work tools (like Zoom or Teams) has increased significantly over the past two years. These tools, and the connections they can offer, are capable of reducing some of the isolation practitioners may feel. This doesn’t necessarily solve any of the problems we have with the larger system, but creating connections between practitioners can absolutely increase our ability to deal with the systems we have. Tackling practitioner wellbeing was new for us (it is new for almost everyone in wildland fire) and we were asked many questions before we began: 

  • “Are you sure you want to wade into this? It is pretty heavy work.”  Yes, it is heavy. But the burden practitioners are carrying is heavier.
  • “Zoom doesn’t seem like the best way to do this. Are you sure?”  Nope, we aren’t sure.  But Zoom is the tool we have and this work is no longer optional.
  • “This hasn’t been done before. You aren’t mental health professionals. Are you sure you can do this?”  Nope, we aren’t sure. But we can work with a mental health professional to do the very best job we can.

Throughout all of those questions (and more) the answers were pretty similar.  There is no certainty in this work. We can’t guarantee that our intervention or learning group will change the outcomes for those who participate. We can guarantee that if we do nothing, the consequences to the workforce we have are more than we are willing to bear. We can no longer afford to let uncertainty limit what we imagine is possible.    

This effort barely scratched the surface.  The Practitioner Wellbeing Learning Group was a good start. It helps demonstrate that we can forge connections between practitioners in a deliberate, intentional way which focuses on their health and wellbeing and do so in a virtual space. But. Four short sessions over four months is only the beginning. The opportunity remains to dig deeper and explore more. The National Wildfire Coordinating Group Mental Health Subcommittee continues to provide leadership, resources, and guidance. Promising and much needed initiatives like the joint effort between the USDA Forest Service and the US Department of Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire, also tied to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, are in development. Efforts like the Practitioner Wellbeing Learning Group can be replicated and new ideas and initiatives can be developed. 

Quote over photo of clouds and mountaintops.

The reality is that until we start – individually and collectively – addressing both the holes in our bucket and the way each grain of sand interacts with each other, it doesn’t matter how much effort we pour into recruiting more people to this field. The workforce we have should not leave this career wrestling with burnout, anxiety, trauma, stress, addiction, self-harm, or suicide. We, as a collective community of those who work in wildfire, owe more to ourselves and our peers. The workforce we have fundamentally deserves to be well and whole, and to leave this work fulfilled and healthy. The workforce we have can support each other, if we invest in the time and tools to enable us to do so.  

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 Subcommittee provides mental health resources for those working in wildland fire.

Seek out a mental health professional near you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.