Constant Wildfires Leave California Firefighters Strained
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The Carr Fire rages in Northern California this weekend, but there's also the Ferguson Fire and the Butte Fire. State emergency management officials say there hasn't been a month without a wildfire in California since 2012. Many firefighters are working 16-hour shifts. Jason Campbell was fighting the Ferguson fire when he learned his house burned in the Carr Fire. He still reported to work.
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JASON CAMPBELL: The only way I felt that I was going to be able to deal with it is just to come out here and deal with the fire personally. You know, it might have taken everything that belongs to me, but it's taken everything from other people. So I made it my personal goal just to get out here and show the guys that, you know, this is what you do. The community comes together, and everybody come out here with a common goal. And that was to get this thing out, so it doesn't happen to other people.
SIMON: Firefighter Jason Campbell, who is a crew boss with the commercial disaster response firm GFP. We're going to turn now to Capt. Mike Feyh of the Sacramento Fire Department.
Captain, thanks so much for being with us.
MIKE FEYH: Sure, it's a pleasure.
SIMON: Help us understand what kind of strain all of these fires have caused firefighters in their departments.
FEYH: Well, it's been a huge strain. I mean, currently here in the city of Sacramento, we have two rigs that are currently deployed - as well as what we call overhead team members. So that's another four individuals. So currently that's just 12, which then impacts our staffing hugely when we're already stretched to the limits.
SIMON: You've been on the fire line yourself, haven't you?
FEYH: Yes, I have. I've been out on these wildland incidents. And typically for our department, which we refer to as local government, we'll go out for 14 to 16 days at a time. And we're out there - and we alternate with 24-hour shifts. But sometimes in the beginning, you'll end up being out on the line for up to 48 hours before you actually get back in and can get some rest and food.
SIMON: Which means, by the time you actually have to fight the fire, you might be - you will be sleep-deprived, exhausted, hungry. And months and months of this must - forgive the phrase - burn out people.
FEYH: And it is. And we're starting to see that among our members. We talk about fire season, but there truly isn't a fire season anymore. Traditionally, that would run from April to May through, you know, September to October here in the state of California. But last year, the Thomas Fire was burning into December. And actually I don't think it was officially put out until March.
SIMON: And is there - as there is in a group of soldiers or police officers, is there some ethic or code of conduct which seems to discourage firefighters from saying they're injured or hungry or need help?
FEYH: And that's one of the other things that we've been battling. And we've tried to raise awareness to firefighters throughout the country - is on the behavioral health side of stuff. We have people who need help. They've got injured. They're suffering from maybe addiction - alcohol, drug. And we've found that if we can actually get out there, do a little bit of preventive education for our members, that we can actually maybe start to reduce the number of firefighter suicides, which has increased drastically over the last 10 to 15 years.
SIMON: I didn't know that. Firefighter suicides have been increasing?
FEYH: Yes. It's almost getting to epidemic proportion. I mean, it's starting to rival our other work-related injuries. And we're finding that a lot of it's due to chronic exposure to multiple trauma and emergency-type response incidents. And then you stack on increased hours, increased workload. And the strain just continues to grow and grow on firefighters to the point where - I mean, it's almost like a rubber band. They're stretched completely thin. Eventually, they're going to snap.
SIMON: If wildfires are going to become a way of life, what do you need?
FEYH: Well, I've been on the Sacramento Fire Department for 24 years. We still have the same number of engines and trucks as we did when I first came on this job. Since then, our call volume has more than tripled. So we need to add resources. We don't have the firefighters and the equipment that we need.
SIMON: We just had a clip from firefighter Jason Campbell, who's with a commercial disaster response company. Is there an increased role for companies like that?
FEYH: I'm sure there is. But some of the things that we're doing with the public agencies is the fact that they will always be there. Civilian agencies, private contractors - there's never that assurance that they're going to be there from the next day.
SIMON: Capt. Mike Feyh of the Sacramento Fire Department. Thanks so much, sir.
FEYH: You're welcome, Scott. Have a nice day.
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