Firefights throughout California are tapping resources and taking a human toll.
Exhaustion, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), fatalities and two recent suspected firefighter suicides have experts and firefighters on notice. And their widows; one of them is Ashley Iverson.
On December 14, 2017, the morning of Day 10 in the Thomas Fire-fight, San Diego Firefighter Cory Iverson was putting out a spot fire north of Fillmore when he became trapped by walls of flames.
“Five weeks before Cory left, he had a Captain that jumped off a bridge in San Diego,” Ashley Iverson said. “When he came home that last time I saw him, I saw fear in his eyes for the first time.”
California’s mega-fires of 2017 marked a deadly record: more than 43 people killed, five of them firefighters, and more than 10,000 homes and structures lost.
Experts say the state’s fire season is now nearly three months longer than it was five decades ago. And that’s leading to a different type of firefight.
“There’s not a consistent maintenance for mental health,” Ashley told our reporter, Beth Farnsworth. “The culture is an environment that…is a “strong man” mentality. You don’t talk and feel and express emotion because that’s a sign of weakness.”
Mounting stress, a sense of closing in, and hopelessness are symptoms Ashley associates with firefighter depression and anxiety. They are all linked to a scenario that Ashley knows intimately.
“When you’re in that place, reaching out and asking for help is the last thing on your list,” Ashley said.
She was pregnant at the time of her husband’s death with Taylor, who is now four months old; their older daughter, Evie, just turned 3 1/2.
Ashley said the days following Cory’s death brought a sense of clarity.
“I believe that having the courage to express that you’re not ok is strength.”
Ashley said her own battle with anxiety and depression — triggered as a teen by an arson fire at her family’s property — now has her on a quest.
“What I’m hoping to do, essentially, is change the culture within first responders that tells these men and women that if they’re not mentally strong enough to handle the things they see and do on a daily basis, then they don’t belong. Because that’s wrong,” Ashley said.
The recent creation of the Iverson Foundation for Active Awareness, a 501 (c)(3), has Ashley working with a San Diego fire chief and a therapist to create a curriculum. The goal is an eight-week long pilot program in nearly a dozen California fire stations. Eventually, Ashley would like to see a widespread message available to all first responders.
“That it’s ok for them to sit down together on a consistent basis and bring the darkness into the light, with open communication, with love and trust that I know they already share,” Ashley said.
“What would Cory say to you now, knowing what you’re doing?” Beth Farnsworth asked.
“Go get ’em girl!.” Ashley responded, with a huge smile.
Note: Local fire officials said that this is a sensitive topic and that emotional/mental health support for firefighters has greatly improved over the years. Nowadays, seeking help is confidential, which lessens worries about any kind of stigma.
For more information about the Iverson Foundation for Active Awareness, click here: http://iversonfaa.com.