The increasing toll on California firefighters on the front lines

Across California, 14,000 firefighters are battling 16 major wildfires, including the Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest one in the state’s recorded history. It takes courage and herculean efforts to prevail over Mother Nature, and sometimes they lose their lives protecting us.

Many others carry hidden, lasting scars. A recent study highlighted a startling statistic: Last year, more firefighters died by suicide than on duty – 103 compared to 93.

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This long and destructive wildfire season is also taking an increased toll on firefighters and their families, as Adam Ashton and Ryan Lillis of The Sacramento Bee and William Ramirez of the Sierra Star reported.

So it’s good that Cal Fire is trying to get out ahead of this potential crisis, as increased stress leads to substance abuse, domestic violence and, too often, taking one’s life.

Director Ken Pimlott is putting more money into support services to help firefighters and their families cope. Counseling is being offered in the field, as well as at fire stations by a Cal Fire unit with seven full-time employees and trained liaisons around the state. Firefighters are being taught to spot post-traumatic stress in each other.

Firefighter unions are also offering similar programs, dispatching peer counselors after suicides and on-duty deaths. The trauma can be deep; it took two days for fellow firefighters to recover the body of Braden Varney after his bulldozer tumbled into a steep canyon in Mariposa County on July 13.

As of Tuesday, with the official fire season just starting, two other firefighters have died. Redding fire inspector Jeremy Stoke was killed July 26 in the Carr Fire. Brian Hughes, captain of the Arrowhead Interagency Hotshot Crew, died July 29 while battling the Ferguson Fire.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco paid tribute Tuesday: “We are all immensely grateful to the tens of thousands of firefighters and first responders from California, other states and other countries currently risking their lives and safety to battle wildfires throughout our state,” she said in a statement.

“Our firefighters are our nobility, and their courage on the frontlines of these blazes is an act of profound heroism.”

A special joint legislative committee met Tuesday, and was to meet again Thursday, to talk about how to better prepare for wildfires.

The panel also is trying to referee a big-money lobbying fight between utilities led by PG&E and insurance companies over who should pay for damages.

But people who lose their homes and businesses aren’t the only victims of wildfires. Committee members must also pay attention to firefighters. So should we.

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A popular video made the rounds last week of a little girl handing out burritos to tired and hungry firefighters near Redding. That’s a good example for the rest of us.

— The Sacramento Bee