BOULDER, Colo. (CBS4)– Long hours and high stress are causing a surge in mental illness and suicides among federal wildland firefighters. They’re leaving the job in record numbers amid escalating fires that are increasingly putting their lives at risk, pulling them away from families for months on end, and leaving them with trauma that often goes untreated.
The suicide rate among federal wildland firefighters is 30 times that of the general population.
Kate Dillon was among those who reached a breaking point. Last year, after working three major wildfires over four months in Colorado, she walked away from a profession she loved.
“I was experiencing some real mental health struggles with the hours of the job and the stress of the job,” said Dillon.
Last year was the worst fire season ever and it came during a pandemic. Fourteen-hour days of risking their lives on a job that doesn’t pay a living wage took a toll on many federal wildland firefighters, who are considered seasonal workers and only insured when they’re fighting a fire.
Dillon says the mental battles often come later, “During the fire season you don’t have a lot of time to see a therapist or go get mental health care so you have that available to you but then when the season is done, your health care is also finished.”
The money doesn’t last long either. The starting pay was $13 an hour until last month when it increased to $15 at the urging of President Joe Biden.
Colorado Congressman Joe Neguse has seen the strain on firefighters first-hand. His district is home to two of the state’s biggest wildfires. He’s determined to ease the financial and emotional burden facing firefighters, “Our wildland firefighters are woefully, woefully undercompensated.”
Neguse is carrying a bill that – among other things – gives firefighters 7 days paid mental health leave every year and increases the number of critical incident stress teams.
“Really ensuring basically that trauma-informed mental health professionals can be ready and able to provide services of this nature to those firefighters who need them,” said Neguse.
A separate bill by Neguse would provide housing stipends to firefighters. Dillon says the high cost of housing in Colorado is one reason she and her husband left. But she’s decided not to leave firefighting.
“I was really on the fence when I left and just thinking that I won’t go back, it was just too difficult but now seeing things like this, some of the changes that might be enacted in this bill, make me want to keep doing fire.”
Both of Neguse’s bills have passed the House and are now in the Senate. He also got an amendment to a defense bill that waives limitations on overtime for firefighters. Many of them depend on the extra pay to make ends meet. Neguse plans to introduce comprehensive legislation in the next few weeks to overhaul federal firefighter pay and benefits.