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Firefighters battle many challenges tied to deadly wilderness blazes

Burnout an issue, as mental health, labour struggles common on wildfire front lines
With climate change expected to worsen wildfires in the future, some firefighters say gruelling labour conditions and associated mental health challenges are taking a toll on the workforce. Firefighters wait to pass through an RCMP roadblock as the McDougall Creek wildfire burns on the mountainside above houses in West Kelowna, B.C., on Friday, August 18, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Two-week work cycles. Shifts that can last up to 18 hours. Sleeping in tents or gymnasiums far from home. Dangerous and unpredictable work environments.

Those are the working conditions for many wildland firefighters across the country as Canada contends with a record wildfire season.

With climate change expected to worsen wildfires in the future, some firefighters say gruelling labour conditions and associated mental health challenges are taking a toll on the workforce.

“There’s no question that we are seeing burnout,” said Steve Lemon, safety and well-being officer with the BC Wildfire Service.

Officials have called this wildfire season unprecedented, with more than 137,000 square kilometres of land scorched to date — more than six times the 10-year average. Tens of thousands have had to flee their communities under evacuation orders, homes and businesses have been destroyed, and four wildland firefighters have been killed on the job this season.

There’s little doubt this year’s wildfires and the efforts to fight them are affecting firefighters’ mental health, said Lemon.

“We’ve been engaged pretty full on since the beginning of May really, without any respite,” he said.

“The length of the fire season, the intensity, the long-term drought that we’ve been experiencing, that all leads to more complex fires, bigger fires. Those will all undoubtedly have an impact on people.”

The BC Wildfire Service used to respond largely to seasonal wildfires but has slowly been expanding into a year-round agency helping with other natural disasters, like floods and landslides, said Lemon.

That’s weighing on the service’s approximately 700 full-time staff, who would typically take advantage of the off-season to rest and recover, he said.

Alex Lane, a firefighter with the service who is also a master’s student in psychology, is researching the mental health outcomes of wildland firefighters and support staff in B.C. and says there’s a clear need to pay attention to firefighters’ mental health.

“It was something that I struggled with throughout my career,” she said.

The BC Wildfire Service offers mental health supports that include a 24/7 dedicated counselling line and has seen those programs get increased use in recent years, said Lane.

It has also seen “a lot” of psychological injuries and workers taking time off due to psychological health issues since the service began tracking those numbers in 2021, she said.

The BC Wildfire Service relies heavily on seasonal personnel during wildfire season, employing 1,600 seasonal workers each year – a third of those are students on summer break.

Paul Finch, treasurer of the BC General Employees’ Union that represents nearly 2,000 employees with the B.C. fire service, said earlier starts to the fire season mean some part-time firefighters are being rushed into the field or placed in roles that should require more experience and training.

“It means that decisions can be made that prolong the fire or allow it to burn over a broader area, and we’ve seen that happen,” he said.

Seasoned, full-time wildland firefighters are being paid at “the lowest rung in government,” Finch said, with wages starting at $26 per hour. That’s causing some veterans to leave for the private sector or other careers, while holding others back from considering wildland firefighting as a long-term career option, he said.

“They can’t sustain raising a family and retiring at a decent time,” said Finch, noting that all those factors add to the mental load on wildland firefighters.

David Greer, director of strategic engagement at the BC Wildfire Service, said the service’s staff complement is being re-evaluated given the new reality of fire seasons. More than 100 crew members were converted to full-time employees this year.

“We would like to see less turnover for certain and that is why we have placed a focus on employee health and wellness, learning and development, and more full-time opportunities with career pathing,” said Greer.

A study into mental disorders among firefighters deployed to the fire that ravaged Fort McMurray, Alta., in 2016 found 40 per cent met the criteria for post traumatic stress disorder, 30 per cent for anxiety disorder, and 28.5 per cent for depressive disorder. The study looked at all types of firefighters, not just those focused on wildfires.

Ken McMullen, president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, said volunteer firefighters with municipal services are increasingly being called upon during wildfire season and many of them are volunteers.

“It’s just not a sustainable model to rely on volunteers for three months of straight (wildfire) activity,” he said.

The association is lobbying the federal government for an increase to the tax incentive for volunteer firefighters, as well as greater funding for mental health supports and specialty equipment, McMullen said.

Those in the field of wildland firefighting say the public can also play a role in diminishing the strain on firefighters.

Beyond taking precautions not to start wildfires, Canadians should be conscious of their comments online, said Lemon, with the BC Wildfire Service.

“We tend to get beat up pretty heavily by the public who don’t necessarily understand the complexity of the work that we’re doing, so we’re often accused of not doing enough,” he said.

“Kindness on social media in support of our people, of our workers, it is an incredibly meaningful thing.”

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