On the fireline, emotional trauma is a hidden threat

As fires grow larger, wildland firefighting poses new risks to bodies and minds.

This past summer, while starting my sophomore year at California State University, Chico, I began working as a freelance photographer. On Sept. 2, I traveled on assignment to the small town of Weed, California, to photograph the Mill Fire, which eventually destroyed more than a hundred homes and structures. As I walked through the historically Black neighborhood of Lincoln Heights, past row upon row of rubble, a flash of turquoise caught my eye. When I approached through the thick smoke, I realized that what I’d seen was part of a brightly colored skirt. The woman who wore it had died in the fire, apparently overcome just as she reached her vehicle. I was the first person to come across her body. 


It was a Friday afternoon, and back home in Chico my classmates were preparing for a weekend of partying and homework. But there I was, 19 years old, in the middle of a disaster zone, explaining to law enforcement how I had happened upon a casualty of the Mill Fire. 

That night, I was in shock. I was sick to my stomach and could barely hold down the little food I ate. I wanted to cry, to let it all out, but I also felt numb, as though I had no emotions to release. In bed, I stared at the ceiling, unable to sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw the horrors of the fire on replay: the ruined houses, the smoke, the dead body. At 5 a.m., I finally began to bawl, heartbroken for the woman’s family and her whole community. 

I returned to class on Monday, emotionally drained. I told only my close friends and family what had happened, and I did not share my experience online until after the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office announced that two people had died in the Mill Fire. 

An engine crew watches the flaming front of the Mill Fire in September.
Michael Steinberg

The following days and weeks were agonizing. But I knew I would heal with time — the kind of time that wildland firefighters rarely get during fire season. Once they finish work on one fire, they are off to the next, no matter what painful memories they carry with them.

Wildland firefighters work long, exhausting shifts — sometimes 24 or 48 hours at a time — and spend months away from their families, missing birthdays and anniversaries. On top of this, witnessing death and destruction is a regular part of their job. Though firefighters are used to pushing their emotions aside and getting to work, the stress and trauma add up. Eventually, something has to break.

In a 2018 survey of 7,000 firefighters across the United States, 65% of respondents reported that they struggled with bad memories, and 59% said they had experienced family or relationship problems; 19% reported suicidal thoughts. Yet 81% said they feared that they’d be seen as weak or unfit for duty if they asked for help. Given these results, it’s no wonder that many turn to alcohol or other drugs to numb themselves; more than a quarter of respondents said they had struggled with substance abuse. Many firefighters have told me they can’t or don’t know how to express their feelings. I know from experience how detrimental such a block can be to mental health. 

Fortunately, there are therapists and life coaches who specialize in helping firefighters through mental health crises. Wildland firefighters and the agencies that employ them ought to be aware of this. When I shared my own Mill Fire experience on Twitter, Andrea Westrum, a life coach who works with first responders, offered me a counseling session on Zoom.

A Cal Fire handcrew walking to their assignment of suppressing spot fires during the Mosquito Fire in September.
Michael Steinberg

I struggled with nightmares for a full week before scheduling an appointment with Andrea. I dreamed of dead bodies lying next to burnt-out cars, of massive wildfires tearing through forests and into towns. I would wake up with a racing heart, sometimes with tears streaming down my face. 

I talked to Andrea about the questions that had plagued me since the fire: Why was I the one who discovered the body? Why was I in the neighborhood in the first place? Why do tragedies like this happen? 

We talked about how I might find meaning in my experience. I could have easily driven past the area, my eyes fixed on the photogenic flames in the distance. But something told me to stop in Lincoln Heights. At the time, there was almost no information available about the damage done by the fire, and those who had evacuated were worried about their families, friends, homes and livelihoods. Maybe, in a small way, I had helped the loved ones of the woman who died, bringing an end to what must have been excruciating uncertainty. Finding meaning in trauma is difficult, but it is always there to discover.

As wildfires worsen, local, state and federal governments need to take measures to lessen the enormous and growing strain on wildland firefighters. Agencies should not only hire more firefighters but increase their access to therapy and other mental health resources. As more and more of us depend on the hard work firefighters do, we owe it to them to become better advocates for their safety and survival. That means protecting their mental health.

During the Mosquito Fire in September, a firefighter watches embers fly across Michigan Bluff road, starting multiple spot fires.
Michael Steinberg

I challenge the wildland firefighting community to end its silence about mental health. I challenge supervisors to speak openly about their own traumatic experiences, to acknowledge the importance of supporting traumatized comrades, and to share the resources available to those struggling with mental health. 

And I challenge all those on the fireline to speak up when you need help. You have already displayed incredible bravery in deadly situations. Now is the time to have the courage to admit that you are hurting. Someone will be there to listen and help; I will be there. And you can be there for the rookies who will one day face the same struggles. Tell them your story, and show them how to get motivated again.

Michael Steinberg is a freelance photographer, storm chaser and stringer for Live Storms Media