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Firefighters across Canada focusing more on mental health as wildfire seasons worsen

Fighting wildfires has always been a physically demanding job, but attention is increasingly being paid in Canada to its psychological toll.

Wildland firefighters and professionals who work with them say the job has become mentally tougher as fires have become larger and more complex, increasingly getting close to or reaching areas where people live.

“I hear it over and over again that these are unprecedented conditions, and yet every every other week there’s new unprecedented conditions,” said Steve Lemon, an incident commander with BC Wildfire Service.

Lemon, who said he has lost five colleagues to suicide, is also a safety and well-being officer trying to accelerate a cultural shift toward more discussions about mental health within firefighting.

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‘It’s OK to not be OK’

Colleen Kamps, a psychotherapist who works with the non-profit Tema Foundation, has been counselling wildland firefighters working in Nova Scotia this year.

The organization received 150 phone calls after advertising a campaign that included free crisis counselling.

Kamps said one firefighter with more than 20 years of experience told her he can handle his job, but at times this season, he has not been able to stop crying.

A woman wearing blue sits in a chair.
Colleen Kamps, a psychotherapist with the Tema Foundation, has been supporting wildland firefighters in Nova Scotia. (Pelin Sidki/CBC)

She said she gives firefighters permission to sit with those emotions instead of ignoring them.

“My thing is, it’s OK not to be OK; you’re allowed to have feelings,” she said.

As Canada reckons with its worst wildfire season ever, crew leaders and firefighting company managers are on alert for warning signs of mental-health struggles.

“We’ve experienced what we usually experience in a year in two months already,” said Andrew Cardinal, business manager for the Saddle Lake Smoke Eaters — an Indigenous-owned wildland firefighting company about two hours northeast of Edmonton.

Cardinal said the Smoke Eaters typically start working after the May long weekend, but this year, they began in April.

A man stands in front of a white truck.
Andrew Cardinal, business manager for the Saddle Lake Smoke Eaters, said wildland firefighters have stressful jobs, especially this year. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Experts say climate change is bringing warmer and drier conditions, leading to longer wildfire seasons. For firefighters, that means more time spent in remote areas, far away from family. 

Cardinal said help is available for his employees — from elders in the community and programs farther afield. 

His company is also planning to hold an all-day training session on mental wellness for office staff, since they, too, can work stressful, 14-hour days.

Harold Cardinal, who works for the Smoke Eaters and has fought fires since he was 17, said he saw a counsellor after being in an all-terrain machine accident two years ago.

“The more you talk about it to somebody, it helps,” he said.

A man stands in front of a fire hall.
Harold Cardinal has been a wildland firefighter for decades. He currently works for the Saddle Lake Smoke Eaters, a firefighter company on the Saddle Lake Cree Nation. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Danny Clarke, a wildland firefighter who works for Fire Wise Forest Solutions in southern Alberta, said crew members try to support each other when fatigue sets in around day eight of a 14-day tour. 

“When we’re out here, we all create bonds and we basically become a family,” he said.

More days off, changing culture

Provincial wildfire agencies in British Columbia and Alberta have ramped up mental health supports, offering peer support programs, 24/7 phone counselling and specialized resilience training.

Research from Nicola Cherry, the chair of occupational health at the University of Alberta’s department of medicine, suggests peer support and debriefing can be effective.

She tracked a cohort of firefighters sent to Fort McMurray in 2016 and found that those working for fire services that provided those supports had less anxiety and less depression than those who did not. 

“We now know they work, they’re useful and there should be systems in place so that they can be called on,” she said.

Steve Lemon said the BC Wildfire Service is increasing the number of days off between successive tours to help combat long-term fatigue. The service is also partnering with the University of Northern British Columbia to study how wildfire affects workers’ mental health.

Lemon said recent efforts are making a difference. The counselling hotline received an average of 91 calls per month last year, down from a larger volume of more disturbing calls in 2019.

A man in a yellow uniform stands in front of trees.
Jarret Whitbread, a wildfire management specialist with Alberta Wildfire, says more people in the industry are now talking about mental health. (Submitted by Jarret Whitbread)

Jarret Whitbread, a wildfire management specialist with Alberta Wildfire, said he’s seeing progress in Alberta as well. 

Whitbread said more people are now talking about mental health within fire crew, breaking down stigma that has surrounded it in the past. 

“The No. 1 thing we can do is bring awareness to it,” he said.

If you or someone you know is struggling, here’s where to get help:

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