Rick Hurd – Bay Area News Group
Firefighter Chuck Stark summed up life in the 2020s for crews at the Contra Costa Fire Protection District and throughout the state:
“If I could describe it in one word: Unrelenting,” he said. “There used to be an ebb and a flow to this. Not anymore.”
The 26 stations Stark, the assistant chief of operations, oversees took an annual average of 76,000 total calls ranging from vehicle accidents to fires to hazardous materials situations to EMS calls from 2017-2020. A year ago, they had nearly 81,000 calls — an average of nearly 100 extra calls a week.
It’s additional weight for a profession that job site CareerCast ranked the second-most stressful in 2021 — second only to fighter pilots — and that has been ranked in the top four in the past five years.
The beginning of May means the arrival of Wildfire Preparedness Week, once a chance to remind residents about the approaching fire season and their role in preventing blazes.
But this year, temperature records fell in early April as highs soared past 90 degrees. Fire officials were sounding the alarm about the state’s new reality — a “fire season” that once lasted from June through October now covering almost all of the calendar, even in winter.
Small wildfires have already begun to break out, including a pair of two-alarm blazes in Pittsburg on back-to-back days this week that combined to burn 10 acres. One home suffered minor exterior damage, and the flames threatened others.
Despite recent rains and cooler weather, officials said the two fires threatened to spread quickly.
“It’s only May 2, and things already are so dry as to be dangerous,” ConFire spokesman Steve Hill said. “What does that tell you?”
Stark said the breakneck pace forced by year-round fire danger takes away time for firefighters to recuperate: “There’s no chance for crews to catch their breath or lick their wounds.”
This new reality has made the management of those wounds — many of which cannot be seen — more important and perhaps more difficult than ever, fire officials said. Regular exercise is a key part of the wellness regime for many.
A fully-equipped weight room complete with aerobic machines recently opened at Station 8 in Pittsburg, the main firehouse in the battalion, and physical and massage therapists are there twice a week to to help those trying to sweat out the stressors.
There also are therapists available to help with mental health. The stigma that used to come from seeing a therapist is shrinking, firefighters and officials said.
“When I came through the (fire training) academy, the academy made it a point to tell me that we have those teams, especially on the psychological end,” said firefighter Paul Ramirez, 25. “They preach it here. They make it known that at some point, you’re probably gonna have to talk to somebody.”
According to the American Psychiatric Association, post-traumatic stress disorder affects near three in four firefighters, compared to just 3.6 percent of the general population.
The PTSD is often compounded by sleep deprivation that fire crews said has only gone up with the year-round fire seasons and the pandemic. The widespread disruptions caused by COVID-19 included short staffing for many fire operations.
While the pandemic has eased in the United States, the year-round fire season may be here to stay. The arrival of “fire weather” was announced by the district Friday.
“Everything has grown exponentially with the challenges we face with the climate change,” Stark said. “It makes the wildland seasons longer. When I started here 20 years ago, maybe in June it started, and it might go through October. Then it would rain and slow down.
“This year, we’ve had a little rain but it’s already drying out. The seasons are longer. More people are living outdoors. More people building fires. It compounds the problem of dry vegetation.”
All of it has led to exhaustion among the crews, with personnel getting far less sleep than they once were able to get, Stark said. That exhaustion carries risk for anxiety, depression, anger, panic attacks and other symptoms.
“We train and prepare for the things we’re going to do, and things we’re going to see. That creates a heavy burden that we have to accept,” Battalion Chief Rob Lutzow said. “We know that we are going to retire on our last day of the job a different person than we were on the first day. Everybody knows it.
“Having said that, we are in an age where we know so much more about mental health, and the effect of traumatic events,” Lutzow added. “We’re doing our best to … create the best possible conditions for our firefighters that we can create. Fortunately, we have more of a grasp on it now than we did … years ago.”
In the meantime, the fires will continue, as will the preparations for the major ones.
“It’s just kind of what we do,” said firefighter James Kell, a 14-year-veteran of the district. “By the time we’re ready to do this, we know what we’re signing up for.”
Stark went back to that famous quote: “We’ve been through hell,” he said. “We’re still going.”