Okanagan firefighters seeking mental health supports as wildfire seasons worsen

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Firefighters receiving mental health supports
WATCH: As the Okanagan approaches another, likely difficult wildfire season, some firefighters are still recovering mentally from last year. As Victoria Femia reports - the need for mental health support is more important than ever as firefighters are pushed to the brink, seemingly every summer now. – Apr 12, 2024

As the Okanagan approaches another, likely difficult, wildfire season, some firefighters are still mentally recovering from last year.

According to local fire departments, the need for mental health support is more important than ever, as firefighters are pushed to the brink seemingly every summer.

“We need to continue to strive to take care of our people. The firefighters in our fire department were exposed to a traumatic event seeing your community burn,” said West Kelowna Fire Rescue Chief, Jason Brolund.

Last summer’s wildfire season in the Okanagan taking a mental toll on firefighters is not always talked about.

“This is my 29th year in the fire service and when I started we didn’t talk about mental health at all,” said Brolund.

“Firefighters were expected to be stoic and do their job without complaining. That was one of the first things we were told; now we focus much more on mental health.”

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Firefighters around the Okanagan are now seeking mental health support more and more as fire seasons continue to worsen in the region.

“We bring in a sports psychologist and he talks about … high-performance mindset and just how you frame looking at different events in life,” said Lake Country Fire Chief Darren Lee.

“It’s a lot on relationships and team, like how do you build a good team is like you start with yourself and then you build your personal, interpersonal relationships and that that will kind of take care of the team.”

The McDougall Creek wildfire put firefighters’ strength and resiliency to the test last summer, as they fought to protect the homes of others while many had to watch their own burn.

“It’s like rocks in a backpack and every incident that firefighters go to that are difficult is another rock in that backpack and eventually that backpack becomes too heavy to carry. It starts to affect your life in many different ways,” said Brolund.

According to Brolund, it’s not until after the seasons passed that many began to feel the mental struggles.

“We start to process things and you don’t even realize if it’s streets you avoid or that you don’t go through. and it’s only until you start to talk about it that you’re avoiding that neighbourhood because of what happened,” said Brolund.

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Last year, the province added an online training program to help firefighters cope with stress and anxiety. To date, close to 7,000 municipal firefighters have enrolled in the program.

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