California Offers Safe Space For Firefighters To Work Through Stress And Trauma Now that wildfires are a year-round problem in California, officials are adding emotional support to the services they provide to firefighters in the field.
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California Offers Safe Space For Firefighters To Work Through Stress And Trauma

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California Offers Safe Space For Firefighters To Work Through Stress And Trauma

California Offers Safe Space For Firefighters To Work Through Stress And Trauma

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LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

Firefighters and other first responders are stretched thin in California. They've dealt with a series of massive fires over the course of several months. The stress is beginning to take its toll, so fire authorities are trying to address that in the field as firefighters come off their shifts. From member station KPCC, Alyssa Jeong Perry has more.

ALYSSA JEONG PERRY, BYLINE: Leonel Salas spent his 23rd birthday fighting the Woolsey Fire in Southern California. When I met him on his birthday this week at the base camp, he'd just come off the fire line from working all night.

So you must be really exhausted.

LEONEL SALAS: Yeah, pretty tired, working 24-hour shifts, can't really get any rest while we're on the lines.

PERRY: He had been out on the fire lines for over a week. He says he didn't even get to say goodbye to his parents when his crew got the call to head out.

SALAS: I hate to compare it to the military, but it's similar to that because one minute, you can be there, and then all of a sudden, you know, you're just - you're gone. And you don't get to see your family for a minimum of two weeks.

PERRY: People who study post-traumatic stress have compared this work to what soldiers go through. They found that firefighters experience PTSD at rates similar to what's seen in combat veterans. That's according to a study conducted by the International Association of Firefighters. Firefighters see things nobody would want to.

SALAS: It's intense. I wouldn't be able to imagine, you know, having my own home, the same one that I grew up in, you know, just gone and vanish in seconds like that. So there are some things that we see that we - that's basically beyond us, that we can't really help them.

PERRY: Firefighters see things they don't want to talk about.

KEVIN MALLOY: The culture has always been, you know, suppress, suppress, suppress. We'll go ahead and go on to the next call.

PERRY: Cal Fire captain Kevin Malloy says they're trying to change that culture, especially since wildfire season is now year-round and more destructive. Malloy says Cal Fire noticed the need to provide the support in the field in 2015, when the devastating Valley Fire torched Northern California for a whole month.

MALLOY: So it's these long drawn-out major life-changing events that people are going through, these career fires that they used to call them. They are now, unfortunately, becoming the norm. And that's starting to cause people to get tired, to get frustrated.

SINGH: So here at base camp, you see all the things you might expect - showers, sleeping pods, medics - and right in the middle, a trailer with chaplains and first responders trained in peer support. Captain Malloy is one of them.

MALLOY: Someone comes to us, and they get really angry really easily, or they have bouts of sadness, or they're having sleepless nights. What we tell those individuals is those are normal reactions to an abnormal situation.

PERRY: One of the most dangerous risks to a firefighter is in the aftermath. Last year, more firefighters died by suicide than they did fighting fire. So putting a support trailer in the field is one of the newer ways firefighters have each other's backs.

MALLOY: They have a tendency at times to take care of others - that's our job - but we want to make sure that we have the ability to take care of ourselves.

PERRY: Leonel Salas, coming off the fire line on his birthday, puts it this way...

SALAS: We're not heroes. We're normal people that just are trained to a different level than - yeah, we're human at the end of the day. And we go through a lot of the same things that a lot of citizens are going through as well.

PERRY: He says he doesn't need the peer support yet, but he's glad it's here in case he does. For NPR News, I'm Alyssa Jeong Perry in Camarillo, Calif.

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