July 14, 2022
"It was a cute little fire, and it was right by the road," said Sienna Falzetta cheerfully, recalling a fire she and her crew fought in Idaho during a season she spent as a GS-4 Forestry Technician, or wildland firefighter.
Cute might not have been the first word I would have thought of to describe a wildfire started by a lightning strike, but to someone who prepares to fight fires miles or more wide, I suppose cute wouldn't be too far off the mark. Her crew was able to pounce on and smother the fire within just three hours.
After they extinguished the fire, the crew was low on energy, but high in spirits, and celebrated their victory with an ecstatic round of snacking on the way back to camp for the night.
Falzetta went on: "All of us are shoving pop-tarts in our mouth, because we're starving, and we're like, yeah! We're done! We're going home!"
Her crew was almost back to camp when they got a call on their radio. It was a smoke report. This is a report from the fire dispatching team about smoke spotted in the forest, indicating evidence of a new fire, and more work for the crew. They had to turn around and wouldn't get to go back to their camp and be done for the day.
"After we shoved all these pop-tarts in our mouth, we had to go hike up this mountain," Falzetta said.
It was dinnertime and far past the end of a normal work day, but a wildland firefighting crew doesn't have a normal work day. Essentially, they are always on call, and always need to be prepared to work on new assignments at a moment’s notice.
Caitlin Gosciminski, also a GS-4 Forestry Technician, found constant uncertainty to be one of the hardest parts of the job. She never knew what to expect. Like Falzetta’s pop-tart experience, a crew might think they will get off work at 6:00 PM, but if they receive a smoke report at 5:45 PM, they must respond to it and work until the new fire is controlled, even if that means working late into the night after a full day’s work already. Then, it’s back up at 6:00 AM the next morning to keep working on the same fire until it’s out.
Long, unpredictable hours are just one of the reasons why the job is so difficult. Yet, there is an enticing financial motivation to work such an intense schedule. Gosciminski made more money working overtime, with hazard pay, than she did through 40 hours a week of base hourly pay. Extra hours in extreme conditions, though grueling, means extra padding in a paycheck.
“Everyone is after hazard and overtime pay– we call it the honey and oats,” she told me.
To prepare for uncertainty, and the possibility of being called out to a fire, wildland firefighters must always carry large bags of gear, like personal protective equipment, tents, sleeping bags, clothing, and personal items, for up to 14 days out in the field working. A fire roll, or fire assignment, can last for days or weeks at a time, depending on fire severity.
A roll can be long and rigorous. However, the opposite is also true. Falzetta has been on rolls where her crew didn't do much at all.
"There is a decent amount of 'hurry up and wait' in fire," she told me. Hurry up and wait is a well-known catchphrase of the wildland firefighting world.
"You're all pumped, and you're ready, and then, you sit for hours,” she continued. “They always want you to be ready and on your toes, but then you can very well be sharpening tools for six hours straight."
Gosciminski said the stress and uncertainty of the waiting, the anticipation of an assignment, was mentally taxing. When her crew was working on forest maintenance far away from active wildfires, extra stress was triggered by a restless urge to help the crews working on the front fire lines.
On rolls, when crews are on the front fire lines of active wildfires, work hours add up to 16 or more a day. Mental and physical stress from the intensity can be just as detrimental to individual and crew safety as the fire itself.
Digging, hiking, or working with a chainsaw for hours every day is stressful and painful for muscles and joints. Falzetta developed a long-term foot injury from the strain of her fire boots and pack. She described feeling like she was always running on empty, coasting through on autopilot mode just to make it through and do the work she needed to do. When a crew is working on a fire, basic needs like sleep and proper nutrition are neglected. In addition to this physical toll, the stress of the work and not knowing what to expect also impacts mental health.
I spoke to psychiatrist Dr. Lisa Carbone of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston about stress responses in the human body. She explained that during the fight or flight response, our bodies secrete stress hormones called catecholamines, which include dopamine, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. Adrenaline is primarily responsible for the fight-or-flight response. It increases heart rate and blood flow to the parts of the body involved in a potential fight or flee response, like the muscles and lungs.
On the job, Gosciminski was in a near constant adrenalized state.
“You always think there’s some kind of threat around,” she said. “That can really take a toll. The work, you just do it, you dig, and you carry chainsaws up mountains, but the stress is just always with you.”
“There are a lot of individual ways of coping,” Dr. Carbone emphasized. “How people respond to stress is all different.” One person might internally respond to stress from an external stimulus completely differently than another, depending on if their stress hormones cause fear and heightened anxiety, or keener awareness of one’s surroundings and higher levels of concentration. Either way, consistent high levels of stress hormones in the body can be detrimental to quality of sleep and overall physical and mental health.
Then, when the fire season is over for the year, new difficulties arise in adjusting to life off the line.
“When you try to go home and explain it to people, this weird life you’ve been living for six months, they won't get it, unless they've worked in fire,” Gosciminski said.
I was curious about how firefighters deal with the stress of the job, both on and off season. Falzetta and Gosciminski said their supervisors consistently offer verbal support. Additionally, the firefighting sector has an EAP, or Employee Assistance Program, that offers resources to firefighters for dealing with mental and physical health. However, it didn’t seem like Falzetta, or Gosciminski, were very familiar with the EAP. Gosciminski told me she’d never tried using it and didn’t know of anyone who had. They both mentioned caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, substances that affect catecholamine levels, all see heavy use amongst some firefighters for their soothing or stimulating effects. And, always, firefighters turn to and lean on each other for support.
“When things get heavy out there, it’s really your crew, how you can make it lighthearted and joke around,” Gosciminski said. “It’s your crewmates that get you through.”
The USDA Forest Service EAP offers 24/7 counseling, as well as six free sessions of counseling, for assessment and referral. They also offer six sessions of health and life coaching and mindfulness stress reduction training, as well as discounted financial consultation, legal assistance, and other personal work-life related resources.
Gosciminski told me she once heard an older firefighter say not much of the job has changed since the 1970s. Firefighting is still firefighting, and the culture has always been one of toughness and fortitude.
“In the fire community, for the longest time, it's always been– don't show weakness, don't show this other stuff,” Gosciminski said. “But the talk about mental health and everything else is becoming less taboo now.”
Falzetta and Gosciminski both expressed a certainty of hope for the future, and this year has already seen notable advancements. On June 21st, the Biden-Harris administration announced a series of bold steps to increase pay, create new mental wellness and health supports, and establish a new wildland fire management job series for federal firefighters. The plan also designated July 2nd as National Wildland Firefighter Day and added an extra day off to firefighter’s schedules, which Gosciminski seemed to get a kick out of. If two days off every two weeks wasn’t enough, how could three be enough?
Gosciminski is planning on going back to school for music therapy. She feels like now, more than ever, she’s realized the importance of mental health, and how music can be therapeutic for her and others. She wrote and produced her own songs about her experiences in wildland firefighting, one of which is found below. She and Falzetta, who is suiting up for the start of her fire season, keep in touch with each other and their other former crewmates, and agree the crew camaraderie is what makes the job worth it. It is also what keeps them hopeful for change.
Gosciminski concluded: “The number one thing is looking out for the safety and well-being of your crew. I just want my crewmates to feel OK. I could see that we weren’t always OK.”