GATES, Ore. — It’s been a year since the Beachie Creek Fire devastated the Santiam Canyon. For firefighters in the area, responding to such a devastating fire so close to home took a mental toll.
Many of the fire departments in the area are volunteer based and in September 2020, they faced something they’d never encountered.
“I've never seen that type of firestorm before and I've been in the fire service for over 20 years. But I think even more so it was in our backyard,” said Amber Cross.
She works for the Oregon State Fire Marshals Office and is also a volunteer firefighter with the Sublimity Fire District. She remembers how surreal it was to fight such a huge and active fire.
“Just mentally I think […] it's exhausting,” Cross said.
That’s why she said it’s so important to address the mental health needs of first responders. Her 2-year-old golden retriever, Probie, helps her do it.
“He is our certified comfort canine […] and most recently Probie and I just joined up with First Responder Therapy Dogs. So we are the first team in Oregon to be part of this group,” said Cross.
Probie has gone to a number of fires, including both the Beachie Creek and Bootleg fires, to give first responders a break from the firefight or their own thoughts.
“With mental health, a lot of times we don't want to talk to another human you know, or another coworker or family member. But you can sit down with a dog and it just opens things up. It's amazing what animals can do,” Cross said.
Damon Faust, deputy chief for the Idanha-Detroit Rural Fire Protection District, knows all about the importance of mental health.
While helping on the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon this summer, he found memories of last year’s fire are still fresh in his mind.
“The sky looked just like it did out here in Idanha-Detroit. You know, mid-morning, bright red, can’t see anything, very suffocating. I did a little nod to myself and said, ‘oh yeah, this is a thing.’ So I carry it. I'll carry it with me for some time,” said Faust.
“I have several firefighters that have reached out and said, you know, they struggled after the fires,” he said.
Faust said he considers his post-traumatic stress disorder from military service in Iraq a gift, allowing him to better recognize red flags in himself and his team
“Trying to emphasize that, again, it's okay to find comfort in being uncomfortable. It's okay to be stressed out or it's okay to, you know, be feeling a little off,” Faust said.
While he, Cross and others continue to address mental health challenges in their own way, they’re proud of how far firefighters have come.
“The resiliency and the ability to hold fast during the storm, right? It fills me with pride,” said Faust.
Cross said there’s been progress in the fire service when it comes to mental health, which has become more of a focus in recent years. Now there are different resources like therapy dogs and an emphasis on peer support. Chaplains are also available as a resource.
Claire McGrew, assistant chief deputy at the Oregon State Fire Marshals Office, said each fire department in the state, more than 300 of them, is typically connected to resources through a chaplain.
“That's always been a key component for local awareness and local connections. Then again, we really make sure that when we mobilize on large-scale fires, that we're considering health and wellness as part of firefighting operations as well,” said McGrew.
While there is more attention on first responders’ mental well-being, Faust said sometimes resources aren’t easy to access in rural communities. He said historically, small fire districts were made up of people who lived in the same area. They became a cohesive team who relied on each other frequently, building rapport. After stressful events, they might sit together and talk about it, which helped their mental health. But now, that team-like feeling may be more difficult to achieve especially in places like Detroit where homes burned. People have been uprooted and there are volunteers who come from out of town.
“Your crew used to have a lot more interconnectedness and [it’s] just the times that we live in. That interconnectedness is hard to capture and you can't force it,” said Faust.
What helps Faust’s mental health are his two daughters. He said shortly after the fire that burned the Santiam Canyon, when there was still no water, few stores, and a lot of charred forest and rubble, he sometimes questioned staying.
“They remind me that we are fortunate to live in this stretch, the stretch of the canyon in this part of Oregon. It still holds so much beauty and there's still so much magic,” said Faust.
“As Oregonians if we can find a way to make peace with okay, this is our new normal, then we can start looking at how do we become more resilient.”