A joint wildland firefighter behavioral health program, currently under development, will expand the mental health support available to wildland fire personnel.
A wildland firefighter contemplates a partially burned forest during the 2021 Caldor Fire. Photo by Joe Bradshaw, BLM.
Wildland fire personnel are the backbone of the federal government’s ability to protect public and Tribal lands, vital infrastructure, and communities from wildfires. They work in incredibly stressful environments that can have significant impacts on their health and wellbeing, including their mental health.
A survey(link is external) of over 2,600 current, former, and retired wildland firefighters found that they are exposed to many types of stressful situations, including those that could have resulted in a fatality, having to run or drive very fast to avoid a fire or falling tree, and seeing human remains. The survey also found that wildland firefighters reported symptoms consistent with mental health disorders at a rate that is 2.5 to 4 times higher than the general population, including depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress. In addition, wildland firefighters reported health behaviors that can be early warning signs of mental health problems, including higher rates of binge drinking and smokeless tobacco use.
These outcomes could be exacerbated as climate change propels more extreme wildfires and longer periods of wildfire activity.
The U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service are developing a joint behavioral health program, announced in June 2022, at the direction of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The program will address the unique experiences and mental health challenges experienced by permanent, temporary, seasonal, and year-round wildland fire personnel.
The new program will establish year-round prevention and mental health training, provide post-traumatic stress care, enhance capacity for critical incident stress management, and create a new system of trauma support services with an emphasis on early intervention.
By bridging existing mental health services and filling the gaps to address the full spectrum of wildland firefighter health and wellbeing needs, this program will increase access to services that build resiliency, improve mental preparedness, recognize the importance of self-care, and address the effects from cumulative stress.
In April 2023, the departments hosted a three-day planning summit to spearhead the development of the joint program. Participants examined what is already known about wildland firefighter mental health and the resources that are currently available, then collectively defined a vision, framework, and implementation plan for the program. Some initial themes that clearly emerged during the summit included:
The departments are currently using the input received to develop the joint program and are increasing staffing to support its implementation.