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Where Traumatized Firefighters In The Field Go For Help

A firefighter is silhouetted by a burning home along Pacific Coast Highway during the Woolsey Fire on Nov. 9, 2018 in Malibu, California. (Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)
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On the morning of his 23rd birthday, Leonel Salas had just gotten off the fireline after battling the Woolsey fire all night. "[We] can't get any rest while we're on the lines," he said.

He was exhausted after being on the line for 24 hours, but relieved to be at the base camp in Camarillo, with its hot meals, sleeping pods and mobile showers.

When Salas, who works for the Cambria Fire Department, got the call to head out to the fire after it erupted on Nov. 8, he didn't even have the chance to say goodbye to his parents.

"I hate to compare it to the military, but it's similar to that because one minute you could be there [home] and then all of a sudden, you're gone." he said.

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Fighting fires has been compared to the kind of stress that soldiers go through in warfare. In fact, a report by the International Association of Firefighters found that firefighters experience PTSD at rates similar to what's seen in combat veterans.

Salas still vividly remembers last year, when he was in northern California fighting the month-long Carr Fire. He saw people's homes destroyed in seconds. It made him pause and think about how he would feel if he lost his own home.

Besides structural destruction, firefighters see other things they'd rather not talk about.

"There's some things that we see that's basically beyond us that we can't really help," Salas said.


The firefighter and first responder culture is known to be stoic, which makes it hard to open up about trauma. But California fire season is changing. It's become longer and more destructive. Firefighters are fighting massive wildfires one after the other. The cumulative stress of it all can take a toll on a firefighter's mental health.

Last year, more firefighters and first responders died by suicide than in the line of duty, according to the Ruderman Family Foundation, a philanthropic organization that focuses on disability rights and mental health awareness.

So fire officials are trying new ways to alleviate overworked firefighters' stress and change the culture.

In 2015, Cal Fire noticed the need to provide immediate support to firefighters and first responders in the field during the Valley fire, which torched parts of Lake and Napa counties in Northern California for more than a month, destroying 1,995 structures and burning 76,000 acres. During the Valley fire, the state agency placed a peer-support team at its base camp.

Firefighters from various departments work to protect structures as the Woolsey Fire moves through the property on Cornell Road near Paramount Ranch on November 9, 2018 in Agoura Hills, California. (Matthew Simmons/Getty Images)
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At the Woolsey fire base camp where Salas and other firefighters recuperate, Cal Fire set up a mobile trailer five days after the wildfire broke out.

The goal was to provide a safe, confidential space for firefighters to talk to chaplains and fellow first responders--and to even pet emotional support dogs.

Cal Fire Captain Kevin Molloy is part of the peer support team. He joked, "Sometimes people like to see the dogs more than they like to see us, but that's okay."

But the peer support members are also there to lend an ear to anyone who needs it.

"We are good listeners," Molloy said. "That's our job."

He said some common symptoms he observes in firefighters are lack of sleep, grief, sadness and frustration.

"What we tell those individuals is, those are normal reactions to an abnormal situation," said Malloy. He and the others also offer suggestions on how to cope with the stress, such as suggesting controlled breathing exercises, warning firefighters not to drink alcohol on their day off, and urging them to get enough sleep.

If firefighters need extra help, the team will refer them to a mental health specialist and make sure they'll have the support they need when they get home.


Molloy hopes having this newer type of support in the field gives firefighters the tools to not only handle stressful events in real time, but the post-traumatic stress that may come down the road.

"They [firefighters] have the tendency at times to take care of others, that's our job," Molloy said. "But we want to make sure that we have the ability to take care of ourselves."

As for Salas, he said he doesn't need peer support right now, although he acknowledges that firefighters aren't superheroes.

"We're human at the end of the day," Salas said. "We go through a lot of the same things that a lot of the citizens are going through as well."

So he's glad the support trailer is there with fellow firefighters who have his back in case he ever does need the help.

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