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Trial by fire: The trauma of fighting California’s wildfires

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Illustration by Julie Hotz for CalMatters

California’s firefighters describe a broken and depleted fire service suffering a hidden, smoldering crisis. Across the state, Cal Fire crews that fight wildfires opened up to tell CalMatters their heart-wrenching stories — exhaustion on the firelines, weeks on duty without respite, suicidal thoughts, never-ending trauma and the terror and pain of seeing their colleagues injured or killed.

As California’s wildfires intensify and burn year-round, its firefighters suffer from the increasing strain of post-traumatic stress. Decisions made while struggling with lack of sleep, long hours and stress could endanger not just the crews, but the public, too. What is the state doing to respond? Overwhelmingly, California’s firefighters and mental-health experts say, “Not nearly enough.” Cal Fire has been slow to address PTSD and suicides among its ranks, and firefighters routinely encounter problems getting workers’ comp insurance to cover their care.

California’s wildfire crews carry a heavy and growing burden: They leave the fire lines, but the fire never leaves them.

Trial by Fire, a four-part series, was reported and written by Julie Cart and edited by Marla Cone. Photography and videos were by Ariana Drehsler, Martin do Nascimento, Miguel Gutierrez Jr. and Julie Hotz. Data visualizations and analysis were by Jeremia Kimelman, Erica Yee and John D’Agostino. Illustrations were by Victor Lowe and Julie Hotz. Production by Liliana Michelena.

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