Agencies boost efforts to stop wildland firefighter suicides

Jul 14, 2019, 7:15 PM
In his June 3, 2019 photo, Bill Arsenault of the Idaho Falls Fire Department looks at memorial ston...
In his June 3, 2019 photo, Bill Arsenault of the Idaho Falls Fire Department looks at memorial stones at the Wildland Firefighters Monument at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Federal officials at the NIFC are bolstering mental health resources for wildland firefighters following an apparent increase in suicides. (AP Photo/Keith Ridler)
(AP Photo/Keith Ridler)

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Shane Del Grosso spent some 30 summers crossing smoke-shrouded mountains and forests to fight increasingly devastating wildfires in the U.S. West.

Toward the end, his skills and experience propelled him to lead a federal multi-agency team that responded to large-scale national disasters. On some days he directed a thousand firefighters and helped coordinate aircraft attacks on massive blazes.

But then came the long offseason lacking the shared-risk camaraderie. Isolation closed in, his family said, along with marital problems that can be exacerbated by first-responder jobs that require missed family events and birthdays.

Del Grosso, 50, killed himself May 9, 2016, not long before the start of another wildfire season.

“I always thought that you’d see it coming, but I guess you don’t,” said his best friend, Noel Matson, who worked and fought wildfires out of the same U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Huron, South Dakota, as Del Grosso. “It was maybe that male bravado firefighter thing where you don’t talk about what’s bothering you.”

Federal officials at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise have started making efforts to change that mindset after noticing an increase in wildland firefighter suicides in recent years.

“It’s not a profession where people want to reach out for help because they are the help,” said Jessica Gardetto, a fire center spokeswoman and former wildland firefighter. “The federal agencies have realized, whether it’s suicidal tendencies or just overall mental health, it’s a resource that needs to be available — even out on the fire lines.”

No figures on wildland firefighter suicides are available because federal agencies often track only fatalities that occur during work hours, and families don’t always release a cause of death.

But Gardetto said the wildland firefighting community is small, “and word spreads quickly.”

Anecdotal reports suggest many of the suicides are happening outside the wildfire season. A month ago, she said, a U.S. Forest Service firefighter based in the U.S. Southwest killed himself. And she said several suicides occurred in Idaho in 2017. One of those was a Boise-based U.S. Bureau of Land Management smokejumper, a firefighter who jumps from airplanes.

Reasons for the rise are unclear, though some cite longer and tougher wildfire seasons and an increase in the number of wildland firefighters who previously served in the military and were already dealing with post-traumatic stress.

In the past several years, the National Interagency Fire Center has bolstered a program that teaches coping skills and offers one-on-one crisis intervention to firefighters dealing with trauma and other issues. Federal agencies also have increased efforts to make firefighters aware that help is available.

It’s unclear what kind of help Del Grosso was receiving. His family learned after his death that he’d been diagnosed with PTSD.

“Obviously he couldn’t escape whatever demons were haunting him. And that breaks your heart,” said his older sister, Stacey Chaney.

Throughout Del Grosso’s career with different agencies, his family tracked news reports hoping to get a glimpse of him at work. It was easier after he rose through the ranks to become an incident commander, a job in which he often spoke at news conferences.

He also sent thousands of wildland firefighters into burning forests, and they trusted him to get them out again.

“He relished his role as incident commander,” said Matson, Del Grosso’s friend and colleague. “He worked well with people and knew just about every position, and everybody respected that.”

Friends and family say Hurricane Katrina might have taken the most out of Del Grosso.

He told them it was the worst disaster he’d ever been assigned, but left out the details. Nearly 2,000 people died in the 2005 hurricane and its aftermath, and parts of New Orleans were destroyed.

“I think that’s where a lot of his problems started,” said his mother, Sharalyn Del Grosso.

“Seeing all that death, all that loss, all that death and dying. There were so many people that needed so much, and he couldn’t do it. That need of wanting to fix it, to do more, to make it better.”

Del Grosso is one of the highest-ranking firefighters to have his name placed on a memorial stone at the Wildland Firefighters Monument at the federally managed fire center in Idaho.

The monument honors some 400 firefighters killed by flames, falling trees, vehicle mishaps, airplane crashes and heart attacks.

That Del Grosso’s name was included is recognition of some of the challenges wildland firefighters face away from fire lines, said Bill Arsenault, a wildland firefighter and paramedic with the Idaho Falls Fire Department in southeastern Idaho.

“It’s huge,” he said while walking past the monument’s stones, noting the names of some of the firefighters he knew. “Sometimes we only memorialize quote-unquote ‘true heroes.’ But they were doing the job no different from anyone else. I think it’s good that we’re recognizing the contribution that Shane made.”
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

Today’s Top Stories


best before labels...
DEE-ANN DURBIN AP Business Writer

Keep it or toss it? ‘Best Before’ labels cause confusion

Manufacturers have used the labels for decades, but some say "best before" labels have nothing to do with safety and that they encourage food waste.
2 days ago
red cross van...
Alejandro Lucero

Utah Red Cross urges residents to donate in wake of Hurricane Ian

All Utahns are urged to donate but especially those with type O blood. You can schedule an appointment online, through their app, or over the phone.
3 days ago
Intermountain drone delivery...
Chris Jacobs

Intermountain Healthcare and Zipline launch drone delivery service

A new drone delivery system by Intermountain Healthcare and Zipline is unveiled on Oct. 4. The program will service the Salt Lake Valley.
3 days ago
Mosquitos at a Utah lab are pictured....
Britt Johnson

Uptick in mosquitos in Utah caused by recent weather and temperatures

Mosquitos in Utah have seen a growth in population thanks to recent weather. While aggressive, they are not the disease-carrying breed.
4 days ago
Turkey and cattle farms near Moroni, Utah. Three additional cases of avian influenza have been conf...
Mark Jones

Three additional cases of avian influenza confirmed in Sanpete County

The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food announced Friday that three additional cases of avian influenza have been confirmed on turkey farms in Sanpete County.
7 days ago
A sign for the Food and Drug Administration is seen outside of the headquarters in July 2020 in Whi...
Jacqueline Howard, CNN

ALS drug gets FDA approval despite uncertainty about effectiveness

The US Food and Drug Administration approved a new treatment for ALS on Thursday.
7 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Young woman receiving laser treatment...
Form Derm Spa

How facial plastic surgery and skincare are joining forces

Facial plastic surgery is not only about looking good but about feeling good too. The medical team at Form Spa are trained to help you reach your aesthetic outcomes through surgery and through skincare and dermatology, too.
large group of friends tohether in a park having fun...
BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

What differentiates BYU’s MBA program from other MBA programs

Commitment to service is at the heart of BYU’s MBA program, which makes it stand out among other MBA programs across the country.
a worker with a drill in an orange helmet installs a door in the house...
Price's Guaranteed Doors

Home improvement tip: Increase the value of your home by weatherproofing doors

Make sure your home is comfortable before the winter! Seasonal maintenance keeps your home up to date. Read our tips on weatherproofing doors.
Curb Appeal...
Price's Guaranteed Doors

How to have the best of both worlds for your house | Home security and curb appeal

Protect your home and improve its curb appeal with the latest security solutions like beautiful garage doors and increased security systems.
A paper reading IRS, internal revenue service is pictured...
Jordan Wilcox

The best strategies for dealing with IRS tax harassment | You have options!

Learn how to deal with IRS tax harassment. This guide will teach you how to stop IRS phone calls and letters, and how to handle an IRS audit.
spend a day at Bear Lake...
Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

You’ll love spending the day at Bear Lake | How to spend a day at Bear Lake

Bear Lake is a place that needs to be experienced. Spend a day at Bear Lake.
Agencies boost efforts to stop wildland firefighter suicides