Honoring the Fallen During Wildland Firefighter Week of Remembrance
Wildfire can be one of the most destructive natural forces on the planet – with the ability to destroy property and structures, and take lives. In the South, wildland firefighters combat roughly 68,000 wildfires every single year. While we celebrate and honor their courage, the sobering fact remains that each time these brave folks step foot on the fireline, they face a multitude of potentially life-threatening hazards.
The public was tragically reminded of this in June 2013, when we received news that 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters were lost on the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona. This loss hit too close to home for all of us – wildland firefighters, fire managers, forestry employees and all those who have lost colleagues and friends in the line of duty. When I heard what had happened, it brought back tough memories of those we’ve lost in my own state, including Forest Rangers Joshua Burch and Brett Fulton, who died while fighting the Blue Ribbon Fire ten years ago on June 20. In the southern region, we have seen more than 100 documented wildfire fatalities over the last 70 years. During Wildland Firefighter Week of Remembrance, we not only remember those who have laid down their own lives, we honor them by working to be a resilient brother and sisterhood – renewing our commitment to the health, wellness, safety and support of our wildland firefighters and their families. These efforts include, but are not limited to, the following:
Never Forget – Always Learn
Showing respect and honor to fallen wildland firefighters is an important way to preserve their legacy of service and sacrifice. Taking time to remember also helps us heal, reminds us of the fragility of life and helps us better understand the reality of what it means to be a wildland firefighter.
In addition to remembrance ceremonies, many agencies conduct staff rides, which are field studies conducted where an incident occurred, to learn from the past and gain meaningful perspective and insight. According to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, staff rides “put participants in the shoes of the decision makers on a historical incident in order to learn for the future… Participants should be challenged to push past the basic question of ‘What happened?’ and examine the deeper questions of leadership and decision-making: ‘What would I have done in this person’s place?’… Staff Rides require maximum participant involvement before arrival and at the site to guarantee thoughtful analysis and discussion.”
Support Families and Firefighters Post-Incident
When a fireline fatality occurs, the impact is heartbreaking and expansive. A spouse has lost their partner, a child grows up without a parent, a best friend or colleague is gone forever. Even those who may have never known the fallen firefighter can experience profound loss. It is our duty, as part of this close-knit firefighting family, to provide support to those impacted by these traumatic events. Some states are doing this by ensuring wildland firefighters receive the same benefits as other first responders. For example, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed into law the Joe Donoghue and Donna Jo Horton Act earlier this month, giving Alabama Forestry Commission wildland firefighters and their families the same death benefits as other first responders. Family support programs through non-profit charities, like the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, have also made a huge difference in the lives of impacted families.
It is essential that we also provide support for fellow wildland firefighters in the aftermath of a line of duty death. This means making Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) services readily available. CISM is provided through trained and carefully selected peer supporters and licensed mental health professionals who specialize in trauma. I encourage anyone interested in participating in or implementing CISM services to learn more about this important program.
Improve Wildland Firefighter Safety
One of the most important ways we can honor those who have fallen is by working hard to make wildland firefighting operations safer. Over the years, there have been many advancements to equipment and safety gear, and we continue to support efforts to improve. For instance, Congress passed the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act in 2019, which includes provisions for wildfire technology modernization that grant a number of safety improvements such as firefighter location systems. Additionally, we have updated and refined fireline safety protocols, and made daily safety briefings an integral part of operations.
Another way to improve wildland firefighter safety is through wildfire mitigation practices that reduce fuel loading, like prescribed fire, especially where homes and other structures intermingle with natural areas. Reducing overgrowth of dry and flammable vegetation can make wildfires less intense, creating a safer environment for wildland firefighters during initial attack.
Focus on Firefighter Health and Wellness Year-Round
Wildland firefighters are tough – but so are the challenges they face. According to the First Responder Center for Excellence, “first responders are faced with a myriad of stressors that go beyond what the general population may experience. And chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart and lung disease significantly reduce a first responder’s ability to respond quickly, protect property and save lives—including their own.” By helping our folks stay healthy, both physically and mentally, they will be better equipped to support one another, and to fight fire safely and effectively. We encourage firefighters to take advantage of available mental health programs and resources, or speak with a mental health professional, to address mental wellness issues like stress, anxiety, PTSD and suicide prevention. In addition, it is imperative that we provide time and resources for physical health through exercise and good nutrition.
Sadly, there is nothing we can do to bring back those that we have lost. Those losses will always be felt in the hearts of our firefighting family. By doing everything we can to learn from the past, support each other and strive for a better future, we know their sacrifices will not have been in vain.