Inside Cal Fire’s mental health epidemic
A smoldering crisis has emerged at California’s firefighting agency, Cal Fire.
As blazes intensify and California’s fire season grows longer, firefighters are increasingly fatigued, traumatized and overworked. In her stunning five-month investigation Trial by Fire, CalMatters reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Julie Cart uncovers a severe and unaddressed mental health crisis at Cal Fire.
Despite the difficulty of discussing mental health, high-ranking battalion chiefs and captains opened up to Julie about their exhaustion from weeks on duty, their suicidal thoughts and the never-ending trauma and terror of seeing their colleagues injured or killed.
Let’s dive into the series:
- PART ONE: Understanding the scope of the problem. Cal Fire doesn’t collect data on incidents of suicide or post-traumatic stress disorder among its employees, but in dozens of interviews, veteran firefighters agree the agency is facing a mental health epidemic. “I would be willing to bet that there’s suicidal ideation in half of our employees right now, and half of them have a plan to do it,” said Cal Fire Captain Mike Orton. Another Cal Fire officer said 80% of his station house crew got divorced last year, blaming stress and time away from home.
- PART TWO: How a hard-charging California firefighter lost his last battle with suicide. Captain Ryan Mitchell had worked for 12 years at Cal Fire when, at the age of 35, he drove to a remote 450-foot-high bridge in San Diego County and jumped off. It was the same bridge where he and his crew had many times recovered the bodies of distressed people. “I can’t tell you how many coworkers and longtime friends have killed themselves, and four times as many have attempted it in the last few years,” said Cal Fire Captain Tony Martinez. “Three co-workers in Cal Fire died last week. Died by suicide.”
- PART THREE: A fire captain’s journey from terror to recovery. Battalion Chief Noelle Bahnmiller suffered from nightmares for months after a harrowing night in the Mendocino County wilderness, where a dangerous crown fire surrounded her and nearby colleagues, eight of whom were burned. Eventually, she decided to get a gun. “I felt trapped … I decided the only way to fix it was to kill myself,” Bahnmiller said. But then, just in time, she got help.
- PART FOUR: A dangerous situation gets worse. Despite Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration pumping more money into Cal Fire, staffing deficits persist as fires grow larger and more unpredictable, driven by climate change and drought. Firefighters often are fatigued from working four or more weeks at a time, exacerbating the risks of an already dangerous job. Last year, 10% of Cal Fire employees quit. Meanwhile, firefighters say they routinely encounter problems getting workers’ comp insurance to cover their mental health care. “People are leaving in droves,” said Battalion Chief Jeff Burrow. “We run out of people all the time.”
See Trial by Fire on TV. Julie’s investigation will be featured in newscasts on CBS stations across California, including KOVR in Sacramento at 10 p.m. tonight, KCBS in Los Angeles at 9 p.m. Tuesday and KPIX in San Francisco on Tuesday.
In related news:
- The outlook for this fire season is grim, state and local fire officials said Thursday. “We know the drought is here. We know the fuels are flammable. We know now, with water restrictions, the vegetation around our homes are becoming flammable,” said Dustin Gardner, chief of the Ventura County Fire Department.
- Drought is exacerbating already poor air quality in the San Joaquin Valley, where a lack of water is forcing farmers to fallow their fields. Many are then setting the agricultural waste ablaze, creating towering columns of thick smoke that pose a public health risk, the Los Angeles Times reports.
- The triple-digit temperatures that swept California over the weekend caused UC Davis to cut short a Friday graduation ceremony after six people were hospitalized due to the extreme heat, the Sacramento Bee reports. And although temperatures cooled down on Sunday, they’re expected to tick back up starting Tuesday.
The coronavirus bottom line: As of Thursday, California had 9,106,031 confirmed cases (+0.5% from previous day) and 91,006 deaths (+0.1% from previous day), according to state data now updated just twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.
California has administered 76,821,177 vaccine doses, and 75.5% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.
Other Stories You Should Know
1 More money, more problems
Although Newsom and the state Legislature have yet to reach a budget deal for the fiscal year beginning July 1 — or a consensus on how to spend California’s unprecedented $100 billion surplus — lawmakers are today expected to pass a budget blueprint representing an agreement between Assembly and Senate Democrats. Doing so will allow them to meet their June 15 deadline to pass a budget — and avoid missing their paychecks. But legislative leaders’ gas rebate proposal — the budget item likely of most interest to Californians contending with inflation at a four-decade high and skyrocketing gas prices — isn’t up for a vote today.
- Democratic leaders on Friday unveiled the bill language for their plan to send $200 checks to individuals earning less than $125,000 a year, and each taxpayer and dependent in households earning less than $250,000. But Newsom and lawmakers remain at odds over the best way to put money back in Californians’ pockets: The governor would prefer to send as much as $800 to registered car owners, a plan top Democrats say fails to target the state’s neediest families.
- That isn’t California’s only budget controversy: Newsom wants to inject an additional $1.5 billion into community schools, which provide wraparound services such as mental health care and nutrition programs to high-needs students and their families. Lawmakers, however, didn’t include that proposal in the budget plan they’re set to pass today — a move that will likely be applauded by United Ways of California. The prominent advocacy group, which last year pushed the state to expand the community school model, is now urging legislators to reject Newsom’s request for more funding, alleging “issues that have plagued this program since day one,” Politico reports.
- Another point of contention: funding for severely mentally ill and homeless Californians. Newsom and lawmakers are pushing a controversial plan to compel people with serious mental illnesses and substance use disorders into treatment, but they aren’t proposing adequate funding to implement the program, according to the California State Association of Public Administrators, Public Guardians and Public Conservators. The group wants $200 million annually to handle the increased caseload it says would result from the program. “If Governor Newsom and state lawmakers want to make serving Californians who are homeless a top priority, then the state budget must prioritize investment in public guardians and conservators who make the medical, financial and other decisions the most vulnerable Californians need to get back on their feet,” said Scarlet Hughes, the group’s executive director.
2 Newsom engages in national gun control debate
The federal government took a big step toward passing its first significant bundle of gun control legislation in nearly three decades on Sunday, when a bipartisan group of U.S. senators unveiled a package of proposals that would, among other things, enhance background checks for prospective firearm buyers between the ages of 18 and 21 and incentivize states to pass “red flag” laws allowing authorities to confiscate guns from those deemed to be dangerous. The announcement — spurred by a recent spate of mass shootings, including one at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas — came a day after thousands of Californians rallied against gun violence as part of a national demonstration called March for our Lives. The annual event was launched in the wake of a 2018 mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida high school that killed 17.
- Newsom tweeted on Saturday: “Kids across our nation marched today with more courage than our elected officials. Hey, US Senate — do something. #MarchForOurLives”
- Newsom has persistently pointed to California’s gun violence prevention programs and strictest-in-the-country gun laws to bolster his national profile — even though the state has struggled to enforce some of those policies. Nevertheless, he can afford to set his sights outside the state, given his massive lead over GOP state Sen. Brian Dahle of Bieber in last week’s primary election and his expected easy victory in the November general election. “He’s running for president, and everybody knows it,” Dahle told the Los Angeles Times. “If he was focused on California, he wouldn’t be talking about what’s happening in other states.” (Newsom has said he has “sub-zero interest” in running for president.)
- But in a post-primary interview with Fox 11’s Elex Michaelson, Newsom hinted at a national focus by reiterating remarks he made following the publication of a U.S. Supreme Court draft majority opinion suggesting justices are poised to overturn the federal constitutional right to an abortion: “We have a Democratic Party, and yeah, where the hell are we?” (Newsom also said in the Fox 11 interview that San Francisco voters recalling progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin was “so predictable, particularly after the school board recall.” He added, “I think the issue in San Francisco, in particular, is people want the streets cleaned up — period.”)
3 Primary election updates
As ballots continue to be counted in last week’s primary election, Democrats are holding the top two spots in a state Senate district where Republicans outnumber Democratic voters by more than three percentage points and where Donald Trump narrowly defeated Joe Biden in 2020. How, you may wonder, is that possible? It turns out California’s nonpartisan top-two primary system — in which all candidates are listed on the same ballot and only the first- and second-place winners advance to the November general election, regardless of party affiliation — may be partly to blame, along with political tactics that backfired, CalMatters’ Ben Christopher reports. The race is the latest to raise questions about whether the top-two primary — intended to elevate moderate candidates and limit hyper-partisanship — has achieved its intended goals.
- GOP consultant Rob Stutzman: “The system is not delivering on all the promises of providing opportunity for middle-ground candidates.”
- Senate Republican Leader Scott Wilk of Santa Clarita: “I blame the Republican candidates because none of them closed the deal. I personally like the top two.”
Other election updates:
- In a closely watched, high-dollar San Diego special election to fill the remainder of labor powerhouse Lorena Gonzalez’ term in the state Assembly, labor-backed progressive Georgette Gómez conceded the race to business-friendly Democrat David Alvarez.
- Billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso is still leading Rep. Karen Bass in the race for Los Angeles mayor — though his margin is getting slimmer. The two Democrats are headed for a November runoff. “I have deep respect for both of them,” Newsom said in the Fox 11 interview, “and I’ve not gotten involved in the race.” He also noted both Caruso and Bass are “avid supporters” of his proposal to force people with serious mental illnesses and substance use disorders into treatment.
- CalMatters readers shared with us their reasons for voting in the primary election. As ballots continue to get tallied, follow along with our live results page!
Latest coverage of the 2022 general election in California
CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Expensive ballot measures will dominate California’s November election.
Get ready for a budget deficit: The debate over how much of the state’s budget surplus to spend is a dangerous red herring. California should not be spending the surplus at all, argues Christopher Thornberg, director of the Center for Economic Forecasting and Development at UC Riverside’s School of Business.
Legislative child care proposal overlooks the most vulnerable: Despite California’s unprecedented budget surplus, hundreds of Head Start classrooms — which serve families living below the federal poverty line — are closed due to a lack of funding and an inability to hire staff, writes Anna Ioakimedes, director of governmental affairs at Head Start California.
Other things worth your time
The state finally letting teens sleep in. // The Atlantic
Is California revealing the limits of progressive politics? // The Economist
Op-Ed: Can intermarriage spare California from America’s identity politics? // Los Angeles Times
Downtown San Francisco is on the brink, and it’s worse than it looks. // San Francisco Chronicle
A mentally ill S.F. man slept in a planter box before being accused of murder. Now acquitted, he may be left on the streets. // San Francisco Chronicle
Spike in accidental fentanyl deaths spurs outreach to San Diego County parents. // Los Angeles Times
His art is breathtaking. But he can’t get out of homelessness. // Mercury News
Preventing homelessness with help from a computer model. // Los Angeles Times
New Sacramento law enforcement officials’ focus: Homelessness. // Sacramento Bee
Oakland to create registry to track rent increases and evictions. // Mercury News
San Jose could become the latest Bay Area city to do away with more parking. // Mercury News
Oakland is down to its last strike as a sports town. // Wall Street Journal
London Breed’s brother seeks prison release as mayor prepares to appoint new D.A. // San Francisco Chronicle
A California police officer was accused of domestic violence. He still rose to be chief. // Los Angeles Times
A Malibu security guard died on the job. Three months later, questions remain. // Los Angeles Times
San Francisco Police union president steps down amid claims of financial impropriety. // San Francisco Standard
Lawsuit: Los Angeles shelter for kids was a den for sexual abuse. // Associated Press
Possible hate crime investigated after group stormed Drag Queen Story Hour at Bay Area library. // San Francisco Chronicle
Two California bishops personify Catholic divide over politics of abortion. // Wall Street Journal
They inhabited separate worlds in Taiwan. Later, they collided in a California church. // New York Times
Asian activism is helping to reshape San Francisco’s political landscape. // San Francisco Examiner
Navy to ‘pause’ non-deployed flight operations today after spate of California crashes. // San Diego Union-Tribune
Farmer John meatpacking plant in Vernon to close, citing high-cost California. // Daily News
State Sen. Henry Stern killed his own bill to close Aliso Canyon gas facility, saying it was ‘hijacked.’ // Daily News
State officials draw fire after approving new oil wells in a Los Angeles neighborhood. // Los Angeles Times
Newsom lays out plans for methane-detecting satellites after 9 more leaky wells come to light. // Bakersfield Californian
This iconic California tree could go extinct. But some officials are wary of naming it ‘threatened.’ // San Francisco Chronicle
California bureaucrats separated sheep from goats. This farmer says it could cost him his business. // Sacramento Bee
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