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  • Rachelle Zemlok, PsyD

REDUCING THE EMOTIONAL AFTERMATH OF FIRE SEASON

Our California wildland fire season is coming whether we are ready or not!! We have all been distracted by the pandemic, but the weather isn’t going to wait for us to recover. Fire season takes its own strain and toll on families when our spouse unexpectedly leaves for periods of time. Right now, we don’t even know what life is going to look like when those first fires start rolling. Will we even be able to use family help and daycares by the time those fires hit for support? There’s a lot of uncertainty, but I don't want to lose sight of the real dangers of fire season.

Did you know that we lose approximately 25-30 wildland firefighters each year to suicides?! It’s likely more than this as suicides often go unreported. Firefighter suicides happen at a much higher rate than the general population. They also happen at a higher rate than all line of duty deaths combined. That’s huge!

As a spouse, we worry about our loved one responding to wildland fires and the dangers they face on duty. We can often forget about the fact that we lose more to the mental health repercussions following these fires than the actual fires themselves.

So here are some ways you can prepare yourself and your spouse for the emotional toll the season may take.

  1. Together, come up with a measure of when you’ll reach out for help. It’s hard deciding that in the moment. Basically answering the question, “How will we know when we should get you help?” Come up with some sensitive measures like seeing big lifestyle changes (ex. significant sleep changes, noticeable irritability increase, panic attacks, more worries or hypervigilance, greater alcohol consumption, more isolation, more challenges being present or connecting as a couple, or something just seems off etc.)

  2. Discuss how the two of you will communicate about getting help. Come up with the words the firefighter can use to basically communicate to you as a spouse, “I don’t feel myself” or “I’m having trouble getting some things off my mind.” This should trigger you to find time to listen and support your firefighter in getting help. On the other hand, ask the firefighter spouse what words you can use to communicate, “You don’t seem yourself and I want to support you in talking to someone.” This may seem simple but might actually be the hardest part so use words the two of you will hear and listen to and not make one another defensive.

  3. Figure out NOW what help is available to you and your spouse and maybe even make a list of a couple of individuals you’d call. Many spouses and first responders are not aware of who’s available to them through E.A.P., insurance, or private pay in their area or through video. For first responders themselves they tend to prefer someone who has an expertise with first responders and not just someone on the E.A.P. list. Figuring out who to use can be a big roadblock if you wait until you need it. Find out now when things are going well. Know who you will call and what that process looks like so it’s not one more barrier in getting help. Keep these names and numbers available to both of you.

  4. Make a plan to REALLY check-in following each deployment. Oftentimes spouses don’t know when the right time is to communicate about sensitive topics. However, if you agree that no matter how the deployment went the two of you will always sit down (without kids and distractions) and discuss ups and downs and how things went for each of you, then you wont need to find the right time. It will already be built in.

Our first responders are tough, they deal with a lot, and when symptoms begin to interrupt their lives it doesn’t look how we’d expect. We cannot rely on what stereotypes tell us about depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Based on what we know, we also have to expect at some point they are going to experience some symptoms from the hard things the job exposes them to. Planning for this and having ongoing discussions throughout the career is what’s going to make it easier to talk about when these challenges do come up. As a spouse, we can support them by encouraging open discussions about experiences and impacts, identify when things seem to have taken a toll, have a plan for getting help, and be a part of that plan equipped with numbers for who they can call and what to expect.

I am a clinical psychologist in California and specialize in educating and supporting first responder families. I provide therapy in Livermore, CA and can do video therapy for all residents in California. If you’re looking for help, or have questions, please reach out!

Dr. Zemlok, Psychologist in California specializing in supporting and educating first responder families.


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