Eight days into its response to the deadly mudflows in Montecito, Santa Barbara County’s Regional USAR Task Force 12 had a grim assignment: following trails of mud, water and personal items in search of those still missing. Some two hours after the start of their shift, RTF-12 found the body of 28-year-old Faviola Calderon encased in mud – the 21st death from the debris flow. 

As an RTF leader and president of Lompoc Firefighters Association, Local 1906, Anthony Hudley was immediately concerned about the emotional impact of the recovery on his members. Along with other union presidents on hand to respond, he made sure his team had access to peer counseling at the incident and the environment to process what had happened.

It wasn’t until he got back home, however, that Hudley found himself in need of support. “We were able to give that family closure, but we lost someone,” Hundley said. “It was hard. It’s still hard.”

Hudley’s story is one of countless untold impacts large and small that the disasters of 2017 and 2018 have had on the well-being of California’s firefighters. It was also an example of an unprecedented focus on firefighter behavioral health during and after these events. From IAFF-trained peer supporters to clinicians and substance abuse treatment, California’s firefighters – and notably their unions – mobilized as never before to “heal their own.”

In Santa Barbara County, Hudley and other firefighters benefitted from on-scene peer supporters from nearby locals. They were also supported by “At Ease,” a regional program that brings first responders together with clinicians trained to understand the special issues facing first responders.

“This kind of response was definitely needed,” said Tony Pighetti, past president of Santa Barbara City Firefighters and fire service coordinator for the program. “You’d be blown away at the number of firefighters who made contact and said, ‘Hey, I just need someone to talk to and tell me what I’m feeling is OK.”

A few months earlier, during the North Bay Fires, trained peer-support teams from throughout the Northern California region were on the ground in Santa Rosa even as the fires were still raging. 

In the beginning, Santa Rosa Firefighters Local 1401’s relatively new peer-support efforts focused on connecting with firefighters who lost their homes. By the fourth day into the incident, mutual aid peer support teams deployed into fire stations as trained clinicians volunteered their help at the Local 1401 union office.

“Our first task was just to get people to talk,” said Teddy Day, co-coordinator of Local 1401’s peer support teams. “We didn’t want them to tell us if they were super emotional or try to get too in depth. Some did, and wanted to talk privately. Others didn’t.”

In both cases – the North Bay Fires and the Montecito mudflows – firefighters struggled most with the personal nature of the disasters. With dozens of firefighters losing homes in the North Bay Fires, many found themselves struggling with a status they’d never experienced: fire victim. They also had to wrestle with feelings of guilt – unfounded but undeniable – about what they did or didn’t do to protect their home. “It’s hard to see your city burned to the ground,” said Day. 

“Firefighters lived in the area, they worked in the area, they had families that lived in the area. Firefighters were searching for family members of friends of theirs,” said Pighetti. “The Montecito mudflow was a very personal incident for a lot of the firefighters in the Santa Barbara County area.”

The experiences of Santa Rosa and Montecito, as well as the Thomas Fire and other recent disasters, have revealed the need for a more comprehensive approach moving forward. “The Montecito mudflow was kind of a turning point for where we’ve taken this,” said Pighetti. 

Through the California Fire Service Behavioral Health Task Force, CPF, Cal-Chiefs, Cal-OES and other agencies are using the experience to press for a renewed commitment to behavioral health. CPF-backed legislation – AB 1116 – would provide confidentiality for peer supporters, a step that Pighetti says is still critical to getting firefighters to open up. “We’re still dealing with a stigma that we need to break through.” 

Beyond the immediate aftermath of major incidents, these experiences also point to the importance of keeping an eye on effects that show up long after the fire is out.

“Just like any call, you lock that away somewhere … good call, bad call … a lot of us subconsciously say ‘I’ll deal with that later,’” Day said. “Eventually, everybody’s going to have that moment where it catches up with them. We’ve still got some work to do”