WILDLAND FIREFIGHTER ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH
TLDR: The environmental health of wildland firefighters is not well studied, despite there being clear and direct evidence that their jobs are incredibly demanding and impactful to their health and well-being. That's a problem, and we want to do something about it.
Federal wildland firefighters are the primary responders to wildland fires on federal lands and protection zones. In 2021, there were a total of 13,796 fires in federal protection zones (23.5% of total U.S. fires) accounting for 5.12 million acres of burned land (71.8% of total burned area, nationally; NIFC 2022). Alone, the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service (hereafter, Forest Service or FS) responded to 58% of all wildfire acres burned nationally in 2021 (NIFC 2022).
Studies on wildland firefighter environmental health are incredibly lacking in the published scientific literature. Our team is interested in bringing together interdisciplinary researchers to create a corpus of literature that can inform future policy and management and create healthy and sustainable workplaces for wildland firefighters. As changing climates intensify the number and behavior wildfires, maintaining a healthy workforce is even more critical to maintaining healthy communities, critical infrastructure, and national security.
Due to the nature of their jobs, wildland firefighters are exposed to volatile and high stress environments for prolonged periods of time. This increased exposure concurrently increases their risk of injury (Britton et al. 2013), illness (West et al. 2020), and
cognitive impairment (Vincent et al. 2018). Additionally, these jobs often require extended periods of time in remote and isolated environments and have a history of masculine culture, both of which have been previously shown to be situations that pose heightened safety risks for women (Saunders and Easteal 2013, Durana et al. 2018), and may pose increased risk of suicide (Stanley et al. 2018).
In addition to a stressful and high-risk job, federal wildland firefighters face potential socioeconomic stress. Half (49.3%) of wildland firefighters have had a spouse that has considered separating from their partner due to the strain on the relationship caused by the job, and 88% of spouses of WFFs reported that increased pay would help support their families more effectively (GWF 2021). Further, cultural norms that promote conformity and organizational loyalty (Thackaberry 2004) above self-advocacy may limit firefighters’ perceived ability to effect positive professional change. This combination of cultural, physical, physiological, psychological, and socioeconomic stressors and risk factors in the face of increasing ecological and climatic stressors that are likely to intensify the working environment creates an imminent need for this work.