"Wildfire Fighters Describe A Mental Health Crisis On The Frontlines"

"Extreme working conditions, low pay and high turnover are leading to a crisis exacerbated by more intense wildfires. Eighteen firefighters tell their stories of the mental toll — from burnout to PTSD to the loss of peers to suicide."

"In June, as the winds howled through the largest wildfire in British Columbia’s history, 50-foot-tall spruce trees, burnt and blackened from the flames, came crashing down within metres of Rose Velisek.

Velisek, a third-year wildland firefighter with the BC Wildfire Service, was told by a superior to “keep her head up … but keep working, keep hosing down the fire,” so she swallowed her fear and did as she was instructed.

“There’s this sense of pressure and anxiety towards getting the job done,” Velisek says. “It doesn’t matter if your safety is going to be compromised, you still gotta be out there doing it.”

The day left her uneasy — a feeling that would grow over the next two months, as her crew worked 16-hour days on back-to-back deployments on three major wildfires in northern B.C.

It would soon be described as Canada’s worst wildfire season in recent years, a new trend as climate change drives wildfires to be more intense and more frequent. But Western Canada’s wildland firefighters say they’re struggling to cope with another out-of-control inferno: a crisis of burnout and post-traumatic stress syndrome, driven by extreme working conditions, low pay, high turnover and — in Alberta — government cutbacks.

The BC Wildfire Service says it’s working hard to improve the culture of wildfire fighting, to ensure safety is a priority. Meanwhile, firefighters in Alberta say they’re being pushed to new extremes, both by the intensity of the work and the length of their shifts."

Trina Moyles and Jesse Winter report for The Narwhal with photography by Jesse Winter September 20, 2023.

Source: The Narwhal, 09/21/2023