The road to emotional recovery could be a long one for those close to the nine people who died in the Aug. 5 helicopter crash at a wildfire in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in Northern California, a mental health expert says.
"For the people who have an event like this happen around them or to them, this changes them, probably for the rest of their lives," observed Vard Miller, 61, a clinical social worker in charge of the critical incident teams for the U.S. Forest Service's Region 6.
"There are actual brain changes as the result of traumatic events," added Miller, who fought wildfires in his younger years. "Sometimes they never totally, fully recover in the sense that there can be a small incident that will trigger those memories and feelings."
This week Miller has been meeting with firefighters and others connected to the crash of the Merlin-based Carson Helicopters Inc. aircraft that killed the pilot, a U.S. Forest Service aviation expert and seven firefighters from Grayback Forestry Inc., which has offices in White City and Merlin.
Three other firefighters and the other pilot of the Sikorsky S-61 helicopter survived, although the pilot remains in critical condition in the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.
"There are different levels of impact, of course, but firefighters are a family," said Miller, who has worked in other tragedies involving firefighters in the Northwest for the past 20 years. "This will affect people throughout the nation."
The first reaction of those close to the victims is shock, numbness or disbelief, he said.
"The first part is helping them through the process, to make as much sense as one can make about what happened," he said. "The old saying, 'You can't eat an elephant at one sitting' — that reflects the enormity of these tragedies."
Miller, whose mission it is to help them through the ordeal, says he listens more than he lectures.
"I don't tell a lot — I ask a lot," he said. "We take a slice out of their journey, have them talk about what it has been like up to here and try to give them some ideas what the future may be like for them. We also suggest things they can do to take care of themselves as they go through this difficult recovery and grieving process."
Assisting in the recovery is the nonprofit Wildland Firefighters Association based in Boise.
"The need for long-term recovery for these families is very important," said executive director Vicki Minor. "The firefighter's income is cut off right away. What we do is pick up the house payment, car payment, things like that to keep the home stabilized until benefits come in."
Minor, 58, who formerly worked in the firefighting community, noted the association is there for long-term support.
"I've been around long enough and am old enough to have mothered most of those kids out there," she said. "It's important that we help stabilize the homes of the kids who are injured. Remember, we've still got one in intensive care in the hospital."
Anyone who wants to contribute to help the families of the victims should contact the foundation at www.wffoundation.org. Contributions should include a reference to the Iron 44 incident.
The public also can contribute through prayer, said Mike Wheelock, 54, the founder and president of Grayback.
"Prayers are so important," he said. "And not just for our firefighters but for all firefighters — agency and municipal.
"It's a tough occupation," added Wheelock, a former smokejumper who began fighting fires in the early 1970s. "When we lose our loved ones, our fellow firefighters, it's hard on all of us."
Since 2002, when Grayback lost several firefighters in a van accident, Wheelock has periodically gotten calls from people asking how to get through such a tragedy.
"Every time I get that call, my stomach gets in knots," he said. "I know what families are going through. I know what other firefighters are going through. It's a tough business."
"It never gets easy," he added, then softly repeated, "Never."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.