US firefighters battle suicidal thoughts after the blaze

September 05, 2018

YORBA LINDA, United States -- Matt Shobert opens his eyes and wishes he was dead, a recurrent thought that started four years ago when the former firefighter first contemplated taking his own life.

He is not the only one: some of his comrades suffer in silence, and some end up committing suicide.

Fighting forest fires such as those that have ravaged the western regions of the United States this summer means days that are both exhausting and interminable, while the death and destruction weigh heavily on the minds of those tasked with stemming the flames.

“You’ve got firefighters working 12 to 36 hours straight on the fire line, so they are physically exhausted, they are emotionally exhausted because we’ve been killing firemen in these fires, firemen have been dying,” said fire chief Tony Bommarito in Yorba Linda, 40 miles (65 kilometers) south of Los Angeles.

California, one of the worst-hit states, has seen five firefighters die battling the flames so far this year. Across the whole country, that number rises to 64, according to official figures.

That figure does not include the 45 who killed themselves in 2018, according to Jeff Dill, whose Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA) group helps those battling depression or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, otherwise known as PTSD.

“We are not superheroes. Everybody has a limit,” said Bommarito, 48.

“We are expected to act brave, strong, courageous to help, don’t ask for help,” said Dill, a retired firefighter whom Matt Shobert called when his thoughts turned to leaping off a bridge in San Diego.

Shobert, 56, was overseeing a clean-up in the middle of nowhere: the brush was dry and combustible, perfect tinder for a forest fire.

In a freak accident, the blade of commercial-grade mower hit a rock and fired it like a missile into his jaw: the operator of the machine was half a football field away and failed to notice what had happened.

Shobert was knocked out cold, and was covered in blood when he woke up. He was not sure how he was going to make it 500 yards to his pick-up truck to call for help.

“I basically had this very traumatic injury and I had to save my own life,” he said. “After spending about 30 years in the fire service, dealing with death and destruction and carnage, and I think all those things came together.”

It took him a long time to recover from his injury. When he returned to work he was not the same man, oscillating between bursts of anger and sadness.

“I realized at that point I had to retire from the fire service and that was all I knew for the past 30 years because it was my life, it was my hobby, it was everything I did. And in a split second it was taken away,” he said.