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Firefighter mental health a priority, wildfire service says

Alex Lane’s wildland firefighting career began in May 2015, and on her second day, Lane was called to a large, complex fire. 

She was working 16-hour days in the heat and smoke — and she loved it. 

“I really enjoyed the pace, the demand, the challenge,” she said. 

But during a slower fire season few years later, her mental health took a turn and she started having panic attacks at work.

“When I had that time to reflect … I found that very hard.”

A person is pictured wearing a headset and smiling
Alex Lane is pictured in 2018, when she was part of the VanJam Inital Attack wildfire fighting crew. (Submitted by Alex Lane)

Now, the B.C. Wildfire Service and other agencies are working to make sure wildland firefighters have mental health supports ready and available year round.

Lane’s experience is not unusual, according to David Greer, B.C. Wildfire Service director of strategic engagement and partnerships. Greer said anxiety tends to spike before and after fire season, when firefighters integrate back into society. 

Following last year’s record-breaking wildfire season, B.C.’s premier assigned a task force to look into wildfire and emergency management. Its recommendations included the need for mental health and resilience resources.

Greer said the wildfire service is trying to be proactive about staff mental health; in spring 2023, the province launched an online training program for firefighters to help with managing stress and anxiety.

“Our wildland firefighters work tirelessly around the clock in some of the most extreme conditions to protect people around our province,” Minister of Forests Bruce Ralston said in a media release. 

“Leaving their own friends, family and community behind to protect others not only takes a physical toll but a mental toll as well,” said Ralston.

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Mike Roberts is the CEO of the B.C. Municipal Safety Association. Matt Johnston is with First Responder Health and a Surrey-based firefighter.

Clinical counsellor Anna Richards runs a confidential hotline, which is contracted by the wildfire service to offer immediate and ongoing counselling to its employees.

“Fire seasons are getting longer and recovery time is shorter,” she said, adding that people are still reeling from 2023 — the worst wildfire season on record.

Richards also happened to fight fires for eight summers in her 20s, about 20 years ago. 

“There was this enormous internalized pressure to prove myself,” she said, adding that the work stood in contrast to her “normal” urban life. 

She said the wildfire service is doing a much better job than it did during her time fighting wildfires — and in comparison to other employers — when it comes to ensuring mental health receives the care and attention required for high-stress careers.

Some firefighters are dreading the upcoming wildfire season, Richards said, which is expected to be particularly difficult as widespread drought continues into its second year.

“People who are drawn to this kind of work carry the burden. They want to keep their community safe. They are people who care a great deal about doing a good job.”

Lane is no longer working on the front lines. Instead, she’s taken a leadership position with the Coastal Fire Centre. 

But even though she’s not out there fighting fires directly, she says she still finds the job challenging.

“I think the difference today [is that] I don’t have to take this on alone,” said Lane. “There is a change, organizationally, around the culture around mental health.”

This article is from from (CBC NEWS CANADA)

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