Here’s to firefighters, their health and safety

When the Mail Tribune invited readers to submit photos of friends and loved ones on the fire lines as a thank you for their hard work and dedication, the tributes poured in from far and wide.

Many are young, in their 20s and 30s, but by no means all. Others are in their 40s and 50s, with decades of experience under their belts. The photos, many reproduced in today’s newspaper, show soot-covered, smiling firefighters clad in the familiar yellow fire shirts, their heads protected by hard hats.

They are men and women from the Rogue Valley, from elsewhere in Oregon and from other states as well. They are assigned to fires called Klondike, Hugo, Taylor Creek, Ramsey Canyon, Mendocino, Delta. They are among 19,000 firefighters battling more than 40 wildfires.

There is plenty of work to go around this summer. And there likely will be more before this long, hot fire season is finally over.

The family members, friends and fire public information officers who submitted the photos are justifiably proud of the work these firefighters are doing, as are we. We join in thanking them for the hard, back-breaking work they do — literally, in some cases. One Grayback Forestry employee suffered a broken neck nearly 30 years ago, and is still, in the words of a relative, “kicking ash.”

Injuries are inevitable in an occupation that asks its workers to hike long distances, clear fire lines with hand tools and operate chainsaws and other dangerous equipment. So far this year, 14 firefighters in the U.S. have lost their lives.

State and federal forestry agencies and private contractors that employ firefighters do focus on safety, but when fires are raging, there is little time to examine the toll firefighting takes on the bodies of those who do it. Enter Randy Brooks, a professor in the University of Idaho’s College of Natural Resources.

Prompted by his son, a firefighter who narrowly escaped a wall of flames that killed three colleagues in eastern Washington in 2015, Brooks launched an online survey that turned up some troubling responses.

Some 400 firefighters reported mental and physical fatigue as the most common cause of injuries. Brooks then began a health study using wrist-worn motion monitors and body-composition measurements. The research turned up health declines and slowing reaction times as the fire season dragged on.

Firefighters often didn’t get enough sleep, the research showed. They lost muscle mass and gained body fat for reasons that are still unclear.

The first year of the study involved only nine firefighters; this year’s, just 18 — all smokejumpers. Brooks says he hopes to include 100 firefighters next year, including specially trained hotshot crews. He wants to pay special attention to the nutrition firefighters get.

The Forest Service has devoted significant effort to developing nutrition guidelines for firefighters, even taking blood samples to track glucose levels. Forest Service officials didn’t comment on Brooks’ research, but they should welcome any new data that can keep firefighters safer and healthier in what is undeniably a risky, exhausting endeavor. And Congress should make sure the agencies have enough resources to maintain health and safety on the fire lines.

Thanks again to all the firefighters, supervisors and others who spend their summers in harm’s way. May they all come home safe at the end of the season.

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