Our journalists strive to bring Californians news that informs, explains and reveals key quality-of-life issues happening across the state. Our latest? A probing and human look into Cal Fire.
In this groundbreaking 4-part series, California’s firefighters describe a broken and depleted fire service suffering a hidden, smoldering crisis. Across the state, the Cal Fire crews who 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 of seeing their colleagues injured or killed.
“I’ve written about fire for a long time and talked to lots of fire commanders, but I have never heard these stoic veterans speak so candidly about fatigue and trauma as they have in the last two years,” says CalMatters environmental reporter Julie Cart. “As I began reporting I quickly realized that there was a complex story to be told, both the stories of personal grief and struggle but also an explanation of the state’s response.”
As climate change intensifies California’s wildfires, the state’s firefighters suffer from the increasing strain of post-traumatic stress disorder. 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 say, “Not nearly enough.” Cal Fire has been slow to address mental health problems among its ranks, and firefighters routinely encounter problems getting workers’ comp insurance to cover their care.
California’s wildland crews carry a heavy and growing burden: They leave the fire lines, but the fire never leaves them. Read the story series today: https://bit.ly/calmattersff.
Over five months, Cart chipped away at revealing the mental health struggles under direction of her editor, Marla Cone.
Cart worked to illuminate the true stories: interviewing dozens of firefighters and subject experts, observing behavioral therapy sessions, compiling data points, researching post-traumatic stress and suicide and persisting on California Public Records Act requests for information.
“Sometimes I would talk to a firefighter — grumpy and not thrilled to talk to a reporter, certainly not about such intimate things — and just kept listening, waiting for that wall to slowly come down. When that happened, and they understood that I sincerely wanted to understand this problem, they gave me a number of someone else who might talk. It worked like that, a kind of relay, so that eventually I found subjects for the series,” Cart said.
“It’s important to understand that this was difficult for these firefighters to talk about and relive, but every single person said they thought it was important to shine a light on mental health issues, remove the stigma that still exists, and to let their fellow firefighters know that they can get help,” Cart said.
The 4-part series, Trial by Fire, shows the unique impact our individual and institutional members create by supporting some of the nation’s best journalists who have unique and storied careers investigating stories such as this.
Already the story series has been featured across media outlets up and down the state.
Trial by Fire was featured on CBS news stations and websites in Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Cart appeared on AirTalk with Larry Mantle on NPR-affiliate KPCC in Southern California. Click here to listen to the segment.
Cart has also discussed the series on KSRO in Santa Rosa, KPBS in San Diego, North State Public Radio, KPFA in Berkeley, KGO in San Francisco, Capital Public Radio, KQED in Northern California, North State Public Radio and Press Play with KCRW in Los Angeles.
And CalMatters work is also distributed across a network of more than 250 newsrooms in the state — many of which are in communities prone to and recovering from wildfires. Already the stories have been republished in the Paradise Post, Calexico Chronicles, Capital Public Radio, The Stockton Record, LAist, The Record Searchlight, The Desert Review and the San Francisco Examiner, California Report, Lost Coast Outpost, Eureka Times Standard, Oroville Mercury-Register, Chico Enterprise Record, Mendocino Beacon, Napa Valley Register, Press Democrat, Jefferson Public Radio, The Recorder, the Vacaville Reporter, Santa Cruz Sentinel, Lake County Record-Bee, Daily Democrat, Vallejo Times Herald, Fort Bragg Advocate-News, Monterey Herald and Red Bluff Daily News.
Trial by Fire was reported and written by Julie Cart and edited by Deputy Editor Marla Cone.
Cart joined CalMatters as a projects and environmental reporter in 2016 after a long career at the Los Angeles Times, where her honors included winning, with colleague Bettina Boxall, a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for their Times series on wildfires in the West. Her most recent honor came as part of a CalMatters team exploring the California drought; previously she and Judy Lin won an award for the story “California’s on fire, unplugged and out of easy answers. So why don’t we….?”
Cone is a deputy editor at CalMatters in charge of our environmental coverage. She was an environmental reporter at the Los Angeles Times for 18 years, winning multiple national awards for her reporting. She also was senior editor/environment at National Geographic, and was one of the editors of the magazine’s gender project that was a finalist for a 2017 Pulitzer Prize. She also developed and oversaw science coverage at Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, and wrote a book on the Arctic’s pollution. She has covered environmental issues for about 40 years.
The series’ 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 was by Liliana Michelena.