A Cal Fire firefighter watches for spot fires from a controlled burn at the edge of the Ranch Fire in 2018. Anne Wernikoff/KQED
A Cal Fire firefighter watches for spot fires from a controlled burn at the edge of the Ranch Fire in 2018. (Anne Wernikoff/KQED)

'A Little Broken' - First Responders Grapple With Unseen Scars of the 2017 Fire Siege

'A Little Broken' - First Responders Grapple With Unseen Scars of the 2017 Fire Siege

8 min

S

hortly after Lucas Boek joined his local fire department, he saw a veteran firefighter walk into firehouse and drop all his gear. “’That’s it, I’m done,’” Boek remembers the man saying. “’I can’t do this anymore.’ And he left.”

Over the years, the incident stuck with him.

Now, Boek is sitting and talking with two other men in a Ukiah high school classroom. Between the three — medic Corey Bender, 44, and firefighters Lucas Boek, 40, and Brendan Turner, 46 — they have nearly 60 years of experience in emergency response. Sixty years of running toward car accidents, gunshots and flames.

But it’s not the physical danger of the work that these guys are talking about today.

It’s something else, something that until recently has been pretty difficult to discuss openly: their mental health. A 2017 study found that police officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. Another survey done last year by the University of Phoenix found that 85 percent of first responders have symptoms related to mental health issues.

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“To a certain extent I agree with what my therapist said, which is that she's never met a first responder that's been working in the field full-time for more than 20 years that isn't a little bit messed up,” Turner says.

Brendan Turner stands by his fire truck behind the Redwood Valley Fire Department in Mendocino.
Brendan Turner stands by his fire truck behind the Redwood Valley Fire Department in Mendocino. (Marisa Lagos/KQED)

As they talk, these guys keep going back to the metaphor of “the bucket” to explain the effect of cumulative stress on their psyches.

Each call they respond to adds another rock to that bucket, and when that bucket overflows, the effects can be disastrous.

Bender says he’s personally known veteran paramedics and firefighters who have quit on a dime, have been alienated from their families or have committed suicide after years of service.

“And the number one killer in the fire and EMS services is heart attack,” Bender says.

The conversation these three guys are having was pretty unthinkable even just a few years ago. But for many of those who responded to the October fire siege, this conversation is not only urgent now — but finally possible.

“You know every single call was a drop in that bucket, and that bucket for some of us was pretty darn close to full before that happened,” Turner says. “It got kicked over in October for many of us.”

Last October

On Oct. 8, 2017, Turner was acting fire chief in Redwood Valley, when he got a call around 11:30 p.m. about a fire in the neighboring town of Potter Valley. An hour later, an ember pushed by incredibly high winds ignited another fire that was sweeping down into Redwood Valley.

Firefighters consider a fire moving at 3 mph to be extremely dangerous, Turner says. This fire was moving 18-20 mph.

Redwood Valley relies on a largely volunteer firefighting department like many rural towns.
Redwood Valley relies on a largely volunteer firefighting department like many rural towns. (Marisa Lagos/KQED)

“You can't outrun that on foot,” Turner says.

Turner remembers that night like a series of movie trailers in his head — disjointed and in no particular order. It is a blur of trying to rescue people trapped by flames and making split-second life-or-death decisions.

“I don't know that I'm ever going to have that full movie in my head,” he says.

It was like nothing Turner had seen before, and it devastated their tiny community of fewer than 2,000 people, burning down more than 500 homes.

Turner’s in-laws lost their home. Another volunteer firefighter drove past his own home on fire, to evacuate people from harm’s way. He wasn’t able to confirm until the following morning that his wife made it out alive. Nine people, including two teenagers, died.

For Turner and Boek, this fire was incredibly personal. They had spent time inside the homes that were burning and knew the burn patients they were bandaging and sending to the hospital.

“For me it just really wrecked me, like it really hurt a lot,” Boek said.

An Injury, Not a Disorder

Turner says in the months after the fire he became a hermit. He stopped going out in public or shopping at the local supermarket.

“My perception was that, you know, people were looking at me different,” he said.

But isolation also didn’t help. He would wake up in the night in full fight-or-flight mode, replaying the worst calls of his career. When the wind picked up, his whole body would go taut and his chest would tighten.

Then on Christmas Eve, a friend who’d also been an emergency responder came up to him at a party.

"That person approached me and said, ‘I think you need to talk to somebody,'" Turner remembers. “Without blinking. I said, ‘Yes I think that's a good idea.'"

In therapy Turner was finally able to talk about not just the October firestorm, but his 23 years of being a witness to some of the most extreme and traumatic events human beings experience. It all came tumbling out of him.

Not surprisingly, Turner was diagnosed with PTSD. But he doesn’t think of it as a disorder, which implies a pre-existing condition. He calls it an injury.

“I look at it the same way as if I were to break my ankle on a call,” he says. “I would go to an orthopedic surgeon, right, and get that fixed? I view this the same way.”

Turner says now he is learning how to treat this injury, through breathing techniques, meditation and by reaching out to other first responders.

Not the Only One

Earlier this year, Turner reached out to Corey Bender, his old friend from paramedic school, with the idea of putting together a peer group.

“I’m like, ‘I think that’s an amazing idea,'" Bender says.

Corey Bender has been a medic for 18 years. He now lives in Redwood Valley.
Corey Bender has been a medic for 18 years. He now lives in Redwood Valley. (Sukey Lewis/KQED)

Completely independently, Bender found he was being approached by more and more people — military veterans, police officers, medics and sheriff’s deputies — all of them speaking about the same thing: PTSD and cumulative stress.

The peer group now gets together every few weeks or so, and they just talk.

Turner remembers a meeting in which he was describing the symptoms he has of chest discomfort — a kind of numbing sensation that travels down his arm.

“One of the members of that group said, ‘Oh no it starts right here.’” Turner says the man pointed to an area on his chest.

“‘And it feels like crawling under your skin,'” Tuner says. “And I apologized. I said, ‘I'm sorry did I already tell you this?’ He goes, ‘No, I'm telling you what I experience.’ It was almost identical.”

The group is made up primarily of people who have been doing this work for decades. They share bad calls, but also talk about their fears, their feelings and their families.

Firefighter Boek says he called up Turner one day because he felt like he was letting down his kids. He was used to being able to handle anything — he kind of felt like Superman. Now he found himself crying in the kitchen for no apparent reason.

“I don’t want my kids to think that I’m hurt or broken, even though maybe I am a little hurt and broken,” Boek says.

Firefighter Lucas Boek says the Redwood Valley Fire hit himself and his community really hard.
Firefighter Lucas Boek says the Redwood Valley Fire hit himself and his community really hard. (Sukey Lewis/KQED)

But Turner says he has come to see that they’ve been actually letting down their families for years — by pretending that they’re not affected by this work. They can actually help their own kids, he says, and other young people who are just starting out as emergency responders by modeling emotional openness.

“If there's one positive that I can see from that horrible incident, it's that the shell that was starting to crack — the attitude and really the lack of honesty about emotions in emergency services — it went from having some cracks in it to shattering for a lot of us,” Turner says.

A New Kind of Emergency Responder

A few months ago, Turned stepped down as assistant fire chief in Redwood Valley. He still volunteers, but he has a new job now teaching health occupations to high school kids.

Along with homework assignments and reading, the words “evacuations” and “disaster response” are written on whiteboard in his classroom.

Many of his students are considering a career in emergency response. He wants them to go into this work with their eyes wide open.

Recently, Turner’s class did a review of Hurricane Katrina. They spent three days watching footage of the disaster and discussing the health care crisis that occurred in the hurricane’s aftermath.

“That’s pretty heavy for some high school kids to watch that,” Turner says.

So, a counselor for the school came into the classroom and did a presentation on techniques to deal with stress and emotions. Turner said when things would get intense, they would take a break and all practice breathing exercises.

A firefighter holds a hand tool ready to build containment around the Ranch Fire.
A firefighter holds a hand tool ready to build containment around the Ranch Fire. (Anne Wernikoff/KQED)

Turner hopes by sharing his own experiences and teaching these young people the tools to cope with those experiences, he can better equip them to manage their own buckets of rocks, now and in the future.

“It doesn't have to end with the firefighter walking in and dropping their gear on the floor and saying you know, ‘Bleep this, I'm done,'" he says. "And I think that's really what we want to prevent."

KQED reporter Marisa Lagos contributed to this report. 

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