PORTLAND, Oregon — A big Pacific Northwest timber company is teaming up with a nonprofit that helps with firefighters' mental health and suicide risk.
With financial help from timber giant Weyerhaeuser, the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA) has set up an online behavioral health resource especially for wildland firefighters. And the need is greater than ever.
More and more, wildland fires that used to burn in the wilderness are reaching our communities. That adds to the behavioral health stress on the men and women who fight those fires, according to FBHA founder Jeff Dill.
“So now the wildland firefighters are dealing with the trauma and tragedy of people and their lives,” said Dill.
We've seen a lot of that in the West. The last few years have been particularly brutal.
In 2020, the Almeda fire in Southern Oregon wiped out hundreds of homes. At the same time, the Beachie Creek fire burned through the Santiam Canyon, taking small towns with it. The Beachie Creek fire claimed at least five lives, while the Almeda killed three.
Jessica Dally is now a forester with Weyerhaeuser, but she was in her third year as an Oregon Department of Forestry firefighter in 2020.
“And so I'm kind of here to bring that empirical view of a firefighter side of what a mental health toll that took,” said Dally in an interview with KGW. “Because I saw it on the faces of my crew as we were driving through our homes and communities and seeing the devastation.”
“The trauma of seeing the devastation of those fires back in 2020, that devastation they carry with them — and because they're supposed to strong and brave and not talk about it, they take it home,” said Dill.
Dill's organization has documented 1,746 firefighter and emergency medical services (EMS) suicides in the U.S. and Canada since 2010. Fifty of them were wildland firefighters, and his groups works to bring light and resources to the problem.
Dill said that since 2020, suicide has taken the lives of four wildland firefighters in Oregon, four in Washington and four in Idaho. And those are just the ones they've been able to confirm.
Now Weyerhaeuser is pitching in, with a grant that funds an online behavioral health site specifically for wildland firefighters. Firefighters can go there to find counseling, support groups and connect with other firefighters.
“That's why we reached out to Jeff and his organization, to just create a resource — a simple, easy to use, confidential page so that wildland firefighters could go there and get help that they needed,” said Kyleigh Gill, Weyerhaeuser’s public relations manager for Oregon.