The job isn’t what it used to be, said Martin Goldberg, a California firefighter who’s dedicated half his life to combating wildfires.
Nearly every time Goldberg goes out, wildfires set new records for acreages burned or homes lost, in part due to the effects of climate change. Blazes have become bigger, more unpredictable, and more grueling. And since 2018, more than 240 firefighters have died while on duty, according to data from the US Fire Administration.
“The fear of death is just the job now,” Goldberg said. “And we just have to do it.”
Exposure to new levels of danger, trauma, human suffering, and fatigue nearly year-round is bringing many wildland firefighters to their breaking points. Wildland firefighters die by suicide at a rate 30 times higher than the general US population does, according to an unofficial tally by former firefighter Nelda St. Clair. (There is no official data, research, or peer-reviewed evidence on firefighter mental health in the US.)
“It’s a ticking time bomb,” said Ben Strahan, the superintendent of a Northern California hotshot crew. “If you haven’t actively worked on ways to understand your trauma and those triggers and how to work through them, you’re going to have a hell of a time.”
The US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. The Trevor Project, which provides help and suicide-prevention resources for LGBTQ youth, is 1-866-488-7386. You can also text TALK to 741741 for free, anonymous 24/7 crisis support in the US from the Crisis Text Line. Find other international suicide helplines at Befrienders Worldwide (befrienders.org).