Fire season—or the “fire year,” as it’s now called—is upon us. In the nation’s West, federal wildland fire crews are preparing for the coming workload and assisting fire resources in the Southeast and Midwest to conduct fuels reduction operations and battle winter wildfires. The advocacy work of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters (GWF) continues, kicking off with a focus on the foundational pillar of Mental Health and Comprehensive Well-Being.
In the summer of 2021, GWF made an anonymous survey available to Partners and Spouses of Federal Wildland Firefighters. In completing the survey, 1,841 respondents shared their experiences as the loved one of a federal wildland firefighter, shedding light on what it’s like to raise a family, manage a household, and support firefighters battling mental health issues.
The results revealed that:
73.1 percent of respondents regularly worry about the possibility of a tragic accident on the fireline. And 65.4 percent lack confidence in the agency to take care of them if something were to happen to their partner while on duty.
60.2 percent report that their partners have been impacted by an incident at work that resulted in mental health challenges. Of those respondents whose partners reached out for help, only 2.8 percent strongly agreed that the agency’s Employee Assistance Program was helpful.
Extended absence physically and/or emotionally was the number one stressor reported as “extremely impactful” to respondents.
In response to suggested areas of future support, wildland firefighters’ partners indicated that the top three areas they’d rate as “extremely helpful” were: higher pay to reduce financial stress (88.0 percent), year-round access to health care for seasonal firefighters (80.2 percent), and access to mental health professionals who understand fire culture (58.3 percent).
When given the opportunity to comment freely, survey respondents said things like:
“It is really hard being a partner to a wildland firefighter; his mental health has really deteriorated in the last few years. More stress with his newer roles and very little pay to compensate for it. There really aren’t enough resources for him to find help with the mental health issues he’s been having.”
“The mental health issues seem to have compounded over time with the nature of the job but also the loss of friends and co-workers to fire related deaths and suicide.”
The Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act (HR 5631, “Tim’s Act”) would address many of the issues wildland firefighters and their partners face. Tim’s Act would increase federal wildland firefighter pay, provide health care and mental health services to permanent and seasonal wildland firefighters, and provide a week of mental health leave when firefighters need it most.
As another fire season begins, it is urgent that Congress move Tim’s Act forward in the House of Representatives. For those struggling to hold it all together as their partners prepare to leave for seven months or more, this legislation could make all the difference, enabling federal agencies to properly pay and care for wildland firefighters and their families.
Smokejumper Tim Hart’s wife Michelle Hart said that “Tim would be humbled and honored to have this legislation be a part of his legacy. These issues were deeply important and personal to him. Wildland firefighters deserve to be recognized and compensated for the grueling conditions in which they work and for putting their lives on the line every day. This legislation is a major step forward in achieving that goal.”
For more information or to see the Partner’s Survey Results, visit the organization’s website at www.GrassrootsWildlandFirefighters.com