Fallen firefighter Robert E. Caldwell, a Granite Mountain hotshot who perished in the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, said to a comrade, “I’d rather die in my boots than live in a suit.”

It would seem one would have to have that mentality to purposely choose such a dangerous vocation. It is a calling, but sometimes it calls back.

In addition to the seasonal amateur firefighter trainees depicted in the Independent Lens film Wildland, all of whom have their own unique experiences and backgrounds that led them to want to take on the dangerous job of wildland firefighting, we thought it would be interesting to get the stories from a few others who serve or have served full-time for fire agencies and had their own unforgettable experiences. We talked to a few veteran wildland firefighters to get a sense of the physical and emotional toll the job has taken on them over the years.

The physical and mental demands of the profession are so high that Charles Palmer, an associate professor at The University of Montana who studies performance psychology of wildland firefighters, considers such workers “tactical athletes.”

Vince Agapito, a retired firefighter based out of Santa Barbara, CA:

“I’ve been luckier than most when it comes to the cumulative impact on my body from fighting wildland fires,” Vince, who has decades of experience in California, writes. “I’m in pretty good shape after 30 years of climbing hills, pulling hoses and swinging hand tools. I have suffered temporary injuries such as torn cartilage in my knee, torn muscles and ligaments in my lower back. But I don’t foresee any joint replacements.”

“Probably 30 percent of my emergency experience is in wildland firefighting, not 100 percent like US Forest Service firefighters and hand crew members such as Wildland depicts. Most of my friends who are full-time life-long wildland firefighters with the Forest Service suffer back and knee injuries. Many, in their later years, require knee replacements. Bad shoulders are also common.”

Vince A. on the job in California a few years back, in a smoke-filled landscape
Vince A. (at right) on the job in California a few years back.

Vince continues: “I personally suffer from PTSD which first manifested itself as chronic anxiety. I never suffered panic attacks, but required medication and counseling. It affected my work and family life. It took years to treat. The daily anxiety is now gone, but I still suffer from claustrophobia, fear of heights and cannot get on an airplane. None of those things bothered me as a young man. I was a classic case during a period of time when little was known or understood of the problem. At first, I lived in denial, then fear, then self-medicated. Sad thing is, it took me almost 10 years to find the right person (professional) who finally provided the right counseling and treatment process.”

“I’ve had several near-misses. I’ve been forced into structures to temporarily escape the oncoming fire front. The plastic on my engine has been melted and paint burnt by radiant heat. I’ve had to make last-second maneuvers and drive through flames to escape the oncoming fire. However, I have never been burned and I have never needed to deploy my fire shelter. I’m sure my brushes with danger are very common with the vast majority of wildland firefighters.”

“Another aspect of the mental distress that affected me was the decisions I made that put other people in harm’s way. Several times I made decisions and ordered co-workers into situations that almost killed them. Luckily no one suffered injuries, but it was very close. Having to deal with possibly causing another person’s death was more problematic for me than facing my own demise. Much worse.”

Katie Wimpari, Arizona-based firefighter:
“I am still a newbie compared to the men and women doing this for 10, 20+ years. That being said, I’ve observed how this job can change you over the years. A supervisor I know has knee problems after the hundreds of miles of steep terrain he’s hiked over. Hiking with weight all the time is just going to wear down your body.”“Some days you don’t notice—you’re just there, working alongside your crew. Other days, you can tell this is a very male-oriented culture.”

“This job makes you mentally and physically tough, no matter what type of crew you work on. Some crews push you physically and mentally when it comes to physical training. With others, you’re uncomfortable the whole time working, digging line or using a chainsaw day in and day out. And whether you work a few seasons, or make this a career, being a firefighter makes you appreciate the little things in life.”

“Since I’ve worked on a fuels crew for the past few seasons, fire suppression is not our main priority. But during certain times of the year we are available for Initial Attack of new [fire] starts in our district, available as a resource for other forests, and in the spring/fall perform firing operations for prescribed burns.”

“As a woman, you are a minority in this field of work. Some days you don’t notice—you’re just there, working alongside your crew. Other days, you can tell this is a very male-oriented culture. Which isn’t necessarily always a bad thing. But communication and general socialization differences can be big factors in how a crew meshes and accomplishes tasks, as well as the types of personalities you are working with. ”

“There are pros and cons that each gender brings to this job, and I think the combination of men and women working together can make a very tight, efficient, and badass crew. At the same time, this job isn’t for every woman. Firefighting is rewarding and fun, yet it’s tough and asks a lot of you.”

Guy Pence, Idaho-based firefighter:

“While putting their bodies in body bags part of their hands and feet came off in my hands. I can see it as clearly today as 15 years ago. I think of it often.”Guy started out in 1968, two days after his high school graduation, as a GS-3 (lower-level) wildland firefighter, including as a smoke chaser on the Challis National Forest.  He retired in 2009 as fire staff with the Boise National Forest, and before that, he did everything: obtaining a BS in Forestry from the University of Idaho, and worked for the Forest Service in Idaho, Alaska, Nevada, and Utah as Resource Assistant, District Ranger, and acting Forest Supervisor.

“If there’s been a toll on my body it may show up in my lungs from smoke inhalation as I get older,” Guy writes. “Toll on my mind? I was responsible for the body removal of two helitack [helicopter-based firefighters] young men in the Cramer Wildland Fire on July 23, 2003. While putting their bodies in body bags part of their hands and feet came off in my hands. I can see it as clearly today as 15 years ago. I think of it often.”

“The most danger I faced: Shell Creek Wildland Fire in 1973 on the Salmon River Breaks where five of us were almost burned over. No fire shelters in those days and Nomex [flame resistant] shirts only. Poor radio communication. And while doing that body retrieval on Cramer Wildland Fire, [it was a] very smoky and active fire.”


More Reading:

After relentless wildfires in the West, a recent study conducted by a professor at the University of Idaho’s College of Natural Resources who deals with wildland firefighting (and whose son is a wildland firefighter who was nearly killed in a fire) focused on tracking both the physical and mental toll fighting wildland fires can take on each person, and honed in on ways that could make it safer.  While getting more sleep and access to more well-rounded nutrition were some of the conclusions, another was less obvious:

[F]irefighters themselves might be part of the problem when it comes to calculating risks while protecting natural resources and property. “There’s a little bit of a hero culture,” said John Freemuth, a Boise State University environmental policy professor and public lands expert. “There is a bonding with everybody. It can create a culture of where you kind of collectively ignore things you shouldn’t ignore.”

A Quiet Rise in Wildland-Firefighter Suicides (The Atlantic):

Over the past decade, there’s been a quiet acknowledgement within America’s firefighting community that suicide is widespread, and that there are still probably many cases that haven’t been reported. As the numbers grow, so too does the concern that the tough, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps wildland firefighters—the men and women who fight fires in vegetation instead of buildings—are at risk. That’s why St. Clair, a manager for the Bureau of Land Management wildland-fire department’s Critical Incident Stress-Management Program, is keeping track. She believes that quantifying the problem can help people talk about its causes.

Wildland Firefighter Foundation provides help and resources for firefighters in need.