“I felt trapped.” For months, a firefighter kept reliving her colleagues’ screams when a Mendocino County wildfire encircled them. On the day she planned to take her life, she got help instead — just in time.
On the day that still haunts Noelle Bahnmiller, she was scheduled to be off work. But as a favor, she agreed to take another firefighter’s shift. It was early August, in the middle of a brutal fire season that already seemed endless. Lightning sparked the tinder-dry, remote wilderness in Mendocino County, and Bahnmiller, then a captain at Cal Fire, and her engine crew were dispatched to lay firehose across a ridgeline.
There was no hint that it would be anything other than a routine assignment. It was a beautiful day, she was in a forest, noisy with birds, she could see forever and she was hiking. All the best aspects of her firefighting job. “Heaven,” Bahnmiller said.
But a few hours later, her radio crackled with urgent voices: The fire blew up, a benign blaze suddenly exploded into a menacing giant. It burned its way to the tops of the trees, creating a crown fire, the most feared and volatile wildfire.
With flames shooting 250-feet high or more – akin to a blazing, 23-story building – crown fires start on the ground and use small trees and lower limbs as ladders to catapult into the treetops. From that commanding height, embers are carried aloft on fire-created convection winds, sparking new blazes miles from the firefront.
Such monster fires move at an astounding pace. Firefighters can only watch helplessly as the fire in front of them flies overhead and sparks new fires behind them. Whack-a-mole doesn’t even begin to describe the problem.
In practice, it would be rare for firefighters to directly attack flames shooting that high; instead, they are supposed to get out of their way. So when she heard that the fire was in the crown, she knew, “You can’t fight that. You don’t want to be there.”
Feeling the wind shift, and hearing the radio reports, Bahnmiller got an eerie feeling on the back of her neck. She knew what was coming, so she raced back to her two crewmen.
The trio hunkered down in their fire engine in a designated safe zone and prepared to defend themselves against advancing flames, a few miles away but roaring out in all directions. More than 12,000 acres were ablaze.
Fire bosses were barking orders on the radio. The air-attack supervisor shouted, “Get those people out of there!” Nearby a crew of eight men was overrun by flames. Bahnmiller heard their screams ringing in the mountains, but didn’t know their fate.
Bahnmiller’s counterpart on another engine was a longtime friend, and he and his crew were trapped on a ridge, surrounded by fire. She kept in contact with him all night on her phone, texting jokes. As trees exploded into flames, Bahnmiller thought about what she would say to her friend’s wife should he not make it. It was a long vigil.
“I laid in the back of the engine, kept seeing the pictures of the crown fire in my head,” she recalls. “I could hear the fire. They always say it sounds like a freight train and it really does, it’s so loud.
“I could not sleep. I kept thinking of my friends who were trapped. I believed at that time that I was watching the fire kill my friends.”
At 4 a.m., she finally climbed out of the engine and began what would become her months-long daily ritual with post-traumatic stress: After a sleepless night, she greeted the day and threw up.
‘Things started coming off the hook’
Bahnmiller, who was 47 at the time, had been fighting fires for eight years at Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency, when she first felt the horrors burrow deep into her, beyond her grasp.
The year was 2014. Ignited by lightning, the Lodge Complex Fire that had burned wilderness and rural towns northeast of Mendocino injured 15 people. Bahnmiller, stationed in Monterey County then, was one of more than 2,000 workers who battled the fire, which burned for 41 days.
It was the summer in the midst of a record-breaking dry spell, when “drought fire” got a grip on California and squeezed and squeezed and never let up. Forests transformed from trees to tinder. The Lodge fire was just one of multiple fires that had ignited simultaneously in the state, straining Cal Fire’s crews.
That summer, “things started coming off the hook,” Bahnmiller said. “The game changed. And it keeps changing.”
Bahnmiller worked the Lodge fire for another week after that long night trapped in her engine with her crew. Later she would learn that all of the burned firefighters survived, as did her friend’s crew, who took refuge in their besieged engine, its paint bubbled and blistered in the heat.
Capt. Noelle Bahnmiller’s post-traumatic stress was first triggered by the Lodge Lighting Complex fire, which was ignited by a lightning strike in Mendocino County wilderness on July 30, 2014. It quickly raged out of control, turning into a dangerous crown fire.
On Aug. 8, the fire overcame Cal Fire crews near Ten Mile Peak, high in the rugged Mendocino National Forest. As the fire exploded, eight firefighters were surrounded and trapped. Noelle heard the men’s screams on the radio channel. She thought they had died. The next day everyone learned they had survived, but they suffered second-degree burns on their hands and faces. Noelle and her team spent that terrifying and helpless night trapped in their engine as the fire marched toward them.
The terror of the eight firefighters overrun by flames wasn’t the only thing keeping Noelle awake that long night. A friend and his engine crew were also hunkered down nearby, and she feared they were encircled, too. She texted him all night, worried they were about to die. As best as she can recall, he was nearby — just a few ridges to the southeast. He and his crew emerged the next morning uninjured, but their engine’s paint had bubbled and blistered in the fire’s heat.
The fire was fierce and its movements unpredictable. It consumed more than 12,000 acres. In addition to the 8 injured firefighters, the Lodge Complex Fire injured 7 other people. Noelle fought the fire for another week after that traumatizing night. It was finally contained nearly six weeks after it began.
Even after Bahnmiller left that fire, it never left her. Back in the station, and at home, she grappled with recurring nightmares and troubling, intrusive thoughts. Whenever she saw trees, she hallucinated that flames were shooting out of them.
For four months, she was all-but sleepless and throwing up every day, turning into a semi-functioning zombie. Bahnmiller developed an irrational belief that if she went to sleep her fire crew would die. Sleep was not a relief, but a portal to something worse. She was unable — then unwilling — to sleep, lest nightmares engulf her.
The Lodge fire wasn’t just on her mind, it utterly occupied her mind. It set her on a path so dark that she eventually considered suicide.
“I was very preoccupied with the fire, but at the same time I was trying to shove it away,” she said. “It felt very acute to me, especially when I would try to rest. These pictures would come rushing into my mind.”
Experts say her experience is a common example of trauma that leads to post-traumatic stress disorder and suicides among wildland firefighters: Like many, she suffered no physical injury but she battled an out-of-control fire, magnifying the sense of helplessness and anxiety that firefighters find particularly stressful.
Bahnmiller was raised to not give in to pain or fear, or even acknowledge it. Her father was a naval officer attached to a Marine Corps unit at Camp Pendleton. Stoicism, service and success were all family bywords, part of what she calls her “Dad-mythology.”
When she hit 30, she was ready for a change, and spent months riding her motorcycle around the country. After witnessing a pregnant woman roll her car in Maine and wishing she had training to help her, Bahnmiller thought it was about time that she devoted herself to serving the public. “My dad went to Vietnam,” she said. “I was raised to do my duty.”
Bahnmiller made a plan and then spent years methodically ticking off all the boxes: She became certified as a paramedic and worked for a private ambulance company and in a hospital trauma ward. She entered Cal Fire’s basic academy and was a rapidly rising star, graduating second in her class from the officer academy.
She’s now a battalion chief, with the rank’s crossed fire nozzles pinned on her uniform. Women make up only 6% of Cal Fire’s firefighting corps.
Tall and lanky, Bahnmiller wears several necklaces as her comforting talismans when she’s working a fire, including her wedding ring, looped through a silver chain. As a paramedic, she’s seen many horrific sights. Whatever clutched at her mind after the Lodge fire, she thought she could handle it.
Now 54, Bahnmiller often talks about resilience: Like when you’re facing your worst demons, when you fear you’ll never recover your balance, you somehow find a way to stand again. Like when steel becomes stronger after it passes through fire.
“I thought I had to fix this because firefighters solve problems,” she said. “We don’t have problems that we can’t fix.”
Psychologists say this heightened sense of responsibility, of needing to fix things or to act, even in the face of grave danger, is a typical mindset of first responders, and an aspect of what makes them good at their jobs. Firefighters struggle when they are ineffective — when they fight mega fires, when they are unable to save colleagues or civilians, when towns burn to ash. Thank-you posters, home-baked cookies and teddy bears don’t begin to heal those wounds.
“Even though I had a wonderful life at the time, I became secretly suicidal because I couldn’t make it stop,” Bahnmiller said. “I didn’t tell anybody that I was having this constant feeling like I was still standing on top of that ridge, watching the crown fire burn those people, and not being able to stop it. I had this feeling of powerlessness. They train us to be in charge. To be decisive. Take action.
“I decided at some point, the only way to fix it was to kill myself. I became obsessed with this idea that to make these pictures stop, I just had to go away.”
She knew she wasn’t the only one struggling with severe PTSD. Over the years, in the communal station bunkhouse, “every night it was common to hear guys screaming from nightmares,” she said.
But Bahnmiller hid her pain from her boyfriend, a federal firefighter who is now her husband, who remembers her acting outwardly normal after the Lodge fire and during the months afterward. She hid it from her friends and colleagues, too, suffering in silence and isolating herself as much as she could.
“Noelle is like most of us, she’s very good at compartmentalizing,” said her husband, Craig Martin, 54, who has been fighting fires for the U.S. Forest Service for more than 30 years. “The times that she would talk to me about things that were bothering her, I made sure I was listening. But at the time, she didn’t say anything about it.”
She talked about the fire with her battalion chief, Dennis King, but only mentioned that others were still processing the stress. King said he didn’t see any signs that Bahnmiller was suicidal or suffering. “We may have had two sit-downs over a couple of weeks,” King told CalMatters in an interview. “I recognized that she had been in a bad situation, but I thought we talked it through.”
King, 76, who retired in 2018 after 22 years with Cal Fire, said he didn’t notice any difference in Bahnmiller at work. “I was totally surprised. I now realize that it’s still something that’s on her mind.”
Four months after the Lodge fire, Cal Fire peer support officer Steve Diaz was in Bahnmiller’s station, following up on phone conversations they were having about someone she thought needed counseling. His job was to explain the agency’s support services, which are voluntary and confidential. But to Bahnmiller’s surprise, in the station he spoke directly to her and said, “Call this number if you ever need help.”
She was deeply in denial and not receptive to the message. “He’s telling me about this program, and I’m thinking, ‘That’s nice,’ “ she said. “I asked him, ‘Why are you telling me about this place?’ He said, ‘Noelle, I think you might like to go there.’” She was offended, thinking, “I’m fine. That’s not a place for me. I’m good.”
If only to put an end to the exchange, she jotted the number on a page in her Smokey Book, a small Cal Fire-issued paper calendar and notebook, and buttoned it into the chest pocket of her uniform. Then she forgot about it.
Vague and evasive responses to overtures for help are commonplace, Diaz said. “I remember our first conversation, she didn’t say much. They can hide trauma pretty well. It can be difficult to see.”
Bahnmiller’s life was unraveling. She isolated herself and stopped meeting friends for coffee. She began to load up on work, taking all the overtime offered.
Her own lifetime of sucking it up, and the firehouse culture that celebrates invincibility, worked in tandem on Bahnmiller, telling her to keep quiet and solve the problem. What she didn’t learn until later is “The brain on PTSD can’t fix the brain on PTSD.”
One day, months after the fire, a longtime colleague said, “What’s going on with you? You are not yourself.” She told him only that she had not been sleeping.
The next day, thoughts were roiling in her mind. She remembered her role model and mentor in the ambulance service, whose advice had always proved solid. He once told her that he went to bed every night “with an Ambien and a vodka.” He eventually shot himself.
She left work intending to shoot herself, too. “I was driving to my boyfriend’s house to kill myself,” she says. “I felt trapped. I didn’t know there were other ways out. I decided the only way to fix it was to kill myself.”
Instead, for reasons she still doesn’t understand, Bahnmiller pulled over, reached into her uniform pocket, dug out the help line number and called.
“The person asked me if I was suicidal, and I said, ‘Of course not. I would never do that,’ ” Bahnmiller said. “The next day I got a call from the intake staff. I couldn’t admit my suicidality and didn’t tell the counselor that I had suicidal ideation. But of course she knew.”
Bahnmiller agreed to attend a “trauma camp” for a week of intensive therapy, but the small group sessions were overbooked by Cal Fire so there weren’t any openings for months.
“I thought, ‘I’ll be dead by then.’ ”
Another near-deadly encounter
Three weeks later there was a cancellation, and Bahnmiller got a spot at the retreat with a group of other first-responders. The camp, in Napa County, is operated by therapists with extensive experience in the trauma inherent in high-risk professions such as firefighting and policing. Cal Fire pays for the program.
The clinicians diagnosed Bahnmiller with acute post-traumatic stress. For a week, she attended group and individual therapy, yoga and meditation classes, and learned calming breathing techniques. A clinician also guided her through a realistic reenactment of a traumatic event as a way to reprogram how her mind processes trauma.
This combination of approaches can have a powerful therapeutic effect. “It was like a shedding. I left completely altered. I felt free. I wasn’t frozen on that ridgetop. It gave me my life back,” she said.
She eventually opened up to her husband, who was shocked by the severity of her depression and pain.
“Until she sat down with me and said ‘I am having trouble and I need to get help,’ I was not aware of the depth of the problem. Over time, the details came out and I understood the depth of how she was suffering,” Martin said.
But, as Bahnmiller would learn, in life there may be happy endings, but no neat ones.
Six years later, Bahnmiller fell prey to another traumatic event. It was August 2020 and she was a heavy equipment boss, leading a bulldozer crew on the Carmel Fire in Monterey County. She was directing two bulldozer operators cutting fire lines, when she stepped out of her truck and sunk her boots into an underground yellowjacket nest.
Bahnmiller is dangerously allergic to many insect stings. So much so that, on the advice of her doctor, on fires she packs EpiPens and powerful antihistamines in a small insulated lunch bag, decorated with a sparkly unicorn.
If you are going to annoy any bug, you wouldn’t choose yellowjackets, the most aggressive of stinging insects. Unlike bees, these creatures can sting multiple times, and they are single-minded, biting flesh to hang on and sting more.
Within seconds of stepping on the nest, yellowjackets swarmed Bahnmiller, covering her clothes and crawling up her neck. She heard a “tink, tink” as wasps caromed off the inside of her helmet.
She ran past the three-man dozer crew toward a riverbank. Her body was nearly completely covered with stinging insects. The men told her she looked as if she were wearing yellowjacket pants.
The crewmen did everything they could to save Bahnmiller, picking yellowjackets from her hair and clothes, all the while being stung multiple times themselves. They would later be recognized with a Cal Fire award for their efforts.
Bahnmiller knew she was racing the clock. Yellowjackets had encircled her throat and as her airway swelled, she gasped for breath.
She had treated severe insect stings and helped patients in anaphylactic shock scores of times. In a bizarre through-the-looking-glass experience, Bahnmiller was the person with the medical knowledge to handle the situation, but she was unable to help herself. “The paramedic in my head said this patient has a 10% chance of surviving,” she said. “Most people who get swarmed like that, they die.”
Losing consciousness, she was able to radio the air supervisor to dispatch a rescue helicopter. Even in her cloudy mind, she did the math. She figured she had minutes.
As the full extent of the emergency presented itself, so did a remarkable stroke of luck. A member of the dozer crew was a helicopter pilot, meaning that he understood precisely what kind of space the rescuers needed to land. And they had on hand the very tools required to build a makeshift landing zone in the middle of the wilderness. The crew fired up bulldozers and began knocking down trees.
Using hand signals, Bahnmiller directed one of the crewmen to put an oxygen mask on her. She managed to stab an EpiPen into her thigh, but it was too little, too late, she thought. “I had gotten peaceful and accepting of what was going to happen next. I was so oxygen-deprived that I thought I was going to die soon.”
Tucked into a narrow valley, the crew heard the thwop-thwop of helicopter blades bouncing through the canyon. As she lay blinking in and out of consciousness, Bahnmiller felt in her uniform pocket and discovered a second EpiPen, but she didn’t have the strength to use it.
The helicopter set down and a young firefighter jumped out and raced toward her. She clutched the EpiPen in her hand, reaching out to him.
“I can’t…” she croaked.
The young man took the device from her, “I can,” he said.
It was one more lucky break. One of Bahnmiller’s jobs is to teach seasonal firefighters emergency medical skills. She had trained this man.
Coming out the other side
Bahnmiller was airlifted to a hospital. As she physically recovered, her mind found a familiar pattern, fixating on the yellowjacket attack that nearly killed her. As the weather warmed, the yellowjackets came out. At home she was afraid to walk though her front garden to her car. She had difficulty sleeping and when she did, she had nightmares of being swarmed by stinging insects.
Her PTSD came back, but this time Bahnmiller recognized what was happening and got help, calling a psychologist right away. She attended another weeklong trauma camp. “I had a network,” she said. “I talked about it from the very beginning, talked about my feelings. I didn’t isolate and made sure to be with people.”
Her husband noticed the change, too. This time “she was very forthcoming and open.”
“Noelle is a supremely strong, independent, smart and amazing woman. My experience is when it’s time to do something, she says, ‘Let’s do it.’ She pretty much had a plan,” for handling her PTSD, Miller said.
Bahnmiller says she’s now on the other side. She works as a counselor in Cal Fire’s behavioral health program and as statewide coordinator of its addiction and substance abuse program, engaged in the nonstop work of helping her colleagues survive trauma as she did.
Things are slowly getting better, for her and others at Cal Fire, she said. The culture is changing.
She recalls an incident a decade ago when she was a paramedic, after a baby died. “We were sitting around a table, talking about coping with it. One of the guys looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you just drink, like everybody else?’
“That’s the culture of the time in a nutshell,” she said. “It’s different now. People are getting help; we’ve got each others’ back. I’ve had a second chance at living. I’m going to make it count.”
If you are having suicidal thoughts, you can get help from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 988 or visiting https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Data analysis and visualization by Jeremia Kimelman.