The Financial and Emotional 'Wear and Tear' of Fighting Fire

3 min
Firefighters use drip torches to set a backfire at night in an effort to make progress against the Thomas Fire before the winds return with the daylight near Lake Casitas on Dec. 9, 2017, near Ojai, California. Strong Santa Ana winds have been feeding major wildfires all week, destroying hundreds of houses and forcing tens of thousands of people to stay away from their homes. (David McNew/Getty Images)

A San Diego Cal Fire unit, which is currently battling the Thomas Fire in Southern California, has lost two firefighters in two distinctly separate incidents over the last several weeks.

One happened Thursday in the line of duty. Cory Iverson was a 32-year-old firefighter who is survived by a 2-year-old daughter and wife who is expecting their second child.

The second was Captain Ryan Mitchell who took his own life in November.

"The wear and tear of the firefighters is at its peak," said Mike Lopez, president of Cal Fire's union, Local 2881.

Burk Minor is director of Wildland Firefighter Foundation, an organization that offers financial and emotional support to families after the death of a firefighter. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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What is it like to work with families who have lost someone?

We let the families know we're here. Sometimes we're on scene, sometimes we're not. It just depends on the situation and what's going on. It is a fine balance. Some families just shut down and they don't want people at their home and so sometimes a liaison's job is keeping people at bay and just talking about immediate needs for memorials and what benefits might be coming in.

Does media play a role in what kind of support a family gets after a loved one dies?

Media plays a critical role [after] a firefighter's fatality. Let's take this one  [Thomas Fire] for instance. It's basically the only largest fire in the country right now, so the whole country is watching that anyway. You get a fatality on that, the media's reporting it, and there's generous people out there: it's humanity, people want to help. So of course they jump in and start donating.  You lose a guy in Montana or Idaho or Oregon, even in California, sometimes they don't make the news.

We've reported on contractors who have died helping battle fires and the company they work for doesn't have workers compensation. Does the kind of support families get after they lose someone depend on what kind of outfit they work for?

Absolutely. If they're working for a contractor that doesn't have any workman's comp or anything like that there's nothing for the family out there.  Especially the work contractor. They might get some state benefits but they really don't even cover the cost of a casket. And that's it. If there's no media involved to help that family they're just out.

How have you seen other firefighters impacted when their friend or someone they worked closely with dies?

There's so much post traumatic stress in this. It's like a war zone out there. It's just like what our military people deal with over fighting a war. If you can picture being out on one of these fires with trees dropping and fire popping and air planes flying over and people dying. Post traumatic stress is a huge thing inside the firefighting community.

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