This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

Spring 2024

Battling burnout

The silent agony of a wildfire off-season

Dan Schertzer

Thick smoke obscures a thatch of trees as a helicopter flies overhead

Photo by Mooneydriver

In the middle of the 2023 fire season, A Critical Incident Stress Management counsellor came to our fire base. The season had been unprecedentedly busy, even with wildfires ramping up in recent years, and my crew in southern British Columbia had racked up more than 70 days on the fireline with no sign of it slowing down.

The counsellor’s visit was proactive. During a previous record-breaking year, I had witnessed the accumulating fatigue that led us to turn on one another. Pushed to our limits through months on end with little sleep, the social structure of the crew fractured, and infighting became common. But this year, my crew supervisor wanted to get ahead of the turmoil.

All 20 of us sit in a circle, and one by one we begin to air our grievances. One crew member speaks up. “I go home, and I just can’t listen to anyone. They tell me stories or things about their life and I just don’t care. I can’t help but trivialize everything they’re going through.” The rest of us nod our heads in agreement.

“I was at MEC and I just kept having power fantasies about beating the cashier to a pulp,” another crew member says. I feel a twinge of guilt. I’ve had similar intrusive thoughts, but I would have a hard time admitting it to a group.

“I don’t feel close to anyone in my life anymore,” I say when it’s my turn to speak. “I feel that all my friends, my family, are drifting away and I can’t stop it.” More nodding heads.

A second-year crew member raises his hand. “I just… I… miss my son.” He can’t say anything else. Tears come instead.

The counsellor speaks. “Listen, you guys are all living up here.” He raises his arm way above his head, and his wrist makes a shaky gesture. He’s referring to weeks with little sleep, the constant high-pressure thinking: contain the fire, avoid death. He’s referring to being away from our loved ones, to several months of moving from one objective to the next without any thought for ourselves or others. He’s referring to 19-year-old Devyn Gale, who died on the fireline near Revelstoke, B.C. just a few weeks before his visit. Again, we nod. I guess the counsellor is right—our normal is somewhere in the region around three feet above our heads.

“Now, when you leave the fireline and spend time at home, everyone else is down here.” His arm lowers to waist height. “Of course, being home is going to feel bad, it’s now an abnormal place for all of you.” The conclusion: being on the fireline is easy now. We have been in it long enough to adapt. It’s leaving it that’s hard.

The group counselling session helped us to recognize each other as members of a common struggle, reminding us to get through it together. However, as seasonal workers, we are laid off in October. Away from the support of our crewmates, in an environment that lives at waist height.

After a few weeks, some recover. They sleep long hours, rekindle relationships with their partners. Bodies worn out, the winter is spent recuperating. They travel, ski, and read. Some return from a chaotic summer and continue working or studying just as they had before. They do arborist work, massage therapy diplomas, forestry degrees. Life goes on.

Others do not fare so well. For many, off-season is a cruel time. It is lonely; the close ties with crewmates are severed. It is inexplicable; family and friends have a hard time understanding what we’ve been through. It is exhausting; previous months of herding fires and digging guards take a toll on the body. In an effort to reclaim, some spend their entire savings on gambling and compulsive drinking. However, usually the suffering is secret, silent. It lives under layers of despair, rotting in the decrepitude of hopelessness and isolation.

This was my fourth year on the job, and despite the struggle, I love it. I have worked in grease-stained industrial kitchens and on the icy ski slopes of New England; but to me, nothing compares to being a wildfire fighter. Nowhere else have I felt the camaraderie of carrying a fire hose with my squadmates until our legs give out, the meditative bliss of chainsaw bucking, or the satisfaction of successfully establishing a fire guard around a community. The job is challenging, thrilling, and communal, all in the astounding desolation of the Canadian wilderness.

After this season ended, I came to expect detachment and lingering fatigue. But this time something was different. Food tasteless, television and books uninteresting. I stumbled to my family doctor. The diagnosis: major depression.

It is one thing to be in such a sorry state for the five-month off-season. It is another to think that some of these burnt-out, emotionally comatose workers will return year after year without question. We are leaving. Across Canada, there are high rates of turnover and a chronic lack of retention.

One solution would be to improve mental health support during the off-season. For example, year-round access to insured therapy would be helpful. However, this would be a band-aid solution to an issue that stems from being overworked in the summer months, an issue that ultimately comes from working under an old model that is in need of revision.

The demands of the job have grown. Wildfire seasons have become more strenuous and crews are spending more days on deployment. As the nature of the job changes, the job itself must adapt to the growing destruction. Treating recovery during the season as a part of the job could be a good step. Earning paid time off after successive deployments would incentivize recovery instead of it being a financial cost to workers. And, at least in my home province of B.C., the ministry is adapting. Deployment length and rest periods have become more flexible. Pay has increased a bit. Washing ash and soot off our bodies is now considered on-the-clock work time. Gradually, things seem to be improving, one motion, one addendum at a time.

There is still more to be done. Depression should not be common among the workforce and burnout should not be an inevitable reality of the job. It may take more union clamouring and scheduling adjustments to make the job more sustainable.

It is unfortunate that my co-workers and I became wildfire fighters at a time when summers became more vicious, when the regulations of the job lagged behind the demands. That we are the ones caught in the gears of an intensity shift. I hope that those of us who are burnt-out, depressed, and isolated are catalysts for a change ahead, and not a sign of what’s to come.

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