By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety, American Military University
Working in high-stress, life-and-death situations and learning how to cope with loss is an unfortunate part of a firefighter’s career. This is especially true for firefighters who regularly battle the country’s largest, most destructive and unpredictable wildfires.
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Peter Jensen and Brian Heath are both veteran firefighters with the Ventura County Fire Department in California. Jensen is a Captain with the department and has been an “all risk” firefighter for 29 years. Heath is an 18-year veteran and a Captain, specializing in Wildland and US&R.
Jensen and Heath were both on the front lines of the recent Thomas Fire, which destroyed 281,893 acres over nearly six weeks. While years of experience helped them power through in the moment, the severity and stress of the situation still weighed on them.
Jensen and Heath are both operational and tactical fire leaders. During the Thomas Fire, they helped track the fire spread and assigned equipment to areas that needed it the most. While they weren’t physically beating down brush, digging fire lines, or pulling hose, their role was mentally exhausting and they worked long shifts with little rest, day-after-day, until the fire was contained. “In a short time, you’re making a lot of high-level decisions and it’s extremely difficult. It wears on us,” said Jensen.
Coping with Loss
During the Thomas Fire, there were two fatalities. Heath was a field observer in the same canyon as the first fatality involving a woman who had a vehicle accident while trying to outrun the fire. The car accident blocked the only escape route out of the canyon and there were 20 cars lined up behind it.
“In the heat of the moment, all I was thinking was how can I stop more fatalities from happening,” said Heath. “I started knocking on windows of cars and telling people to turn around and get to a safe area until the fire front passed through.”
Miraculously, no one else in the canyon was hurt. Had residents taken even a few more minutes to escape to the temporary refuge area (TRA)—in this case, an area of open fields that had little fuel to feed the fire—there would’ve likely been many more deaths.
The second fatality was that of Cory Iverson, a firefighter with CAL Fire, San Diego district. Every firefighter knows that what they do is incredibly dangerous, but when something goes wrong and a firefighter gets hurt or killed, it affects all of them.
“It didn’t hit me until the day after he was killed,” said Jensen. “We were getting ready to go out on the line for the day. During that open briefing, they did a color guard flag ceremony and that was the flag that would be draped over Cory’s casket. It was in that moment when the emotions came across me.
“Even in the moment of mourning, we have to remind ourselves how important it is go back to work and focus on protecting ourselves and our crews so it doesn’t happen again,” said Jensen.
Firefighters also had to cope with the incredible loss of property during the Thomas Fire. In total, 1,063 structures were lost, more than half of them in the first night of the fire. “Every member of the agency is frustrated that we lost 700 homes—that’s unheard of in our county,” said Jensen. “It’s a hard number to swallow.”
Although firefighters desperately wanted to put out fires and save more homes, the situation was beyond their control. Extremely dry conditions, combined with low humidity and high winds, created a worst-case scenario that fueled the largest wildfire in California history.
Recovery Through Acceptance
“When it’s all over, it helps to validate in your mind that you did everything you possibly could to prevent further loss of life,” said Heath. “With that realization comes peace.”
Often firefighters will run scenarios through their minds over and over again, wondering if there was even one small thing they could’ve done that would’ve made a difference. However, playing that mind game, especially after a fire this massive, is highly unproductive and won’t help a firefighter mentally recover from the event.
“I look back at those days and nights and I know we gave it everything we had and did everything we possibly could,” said Jensen. “Thank goodness we only lost two people—that’s a success story in itself when you understand the fire spread and behavior.”
Lean on Others
Firefighters each need to determine the best way for them to recover. For Jensen, it was getting back into his work routine and catching up with all the projects that had been sidelined during the Thomas Fire. “Knowing I was so behind was causing me another level of stress, so I needed to address that first,” he said. “However, in the coming weeks, I will probably go see my therapist to have some professional cleansing. It helps me to talk to a therapist or counselor to gain an unbiased perspective on my thoughts and stressors. Sometimes we all need some help evaluating our priorities and reordering our lives,” he said.
Heath agrees that talking things out helps with recovery. “Our department puts on a critical incident stress debriefing after any major incident and that helps,” he said. Heath also makes a point to take some time for himself. “I have a wife and kids and it’s difficult to take time away for myself, but it really helps me clear my head. I like to take the dog and go for a hike, or spend the good part of a day just driving somewhere. I try not to reminisce about what happened, I just need to give myself a true break from life for a day.”
About the Author: Leischen (Stelter) Kranick is the editor of In Public Safety, an American Military University sponsored website. She has spent six years writing articles on issues and trends relevant to professionals in law enforcement, fire services, emergency management and national security. To contact her, email IPSauthors@apus.edu.For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.