As a travel nurse, Hillary Mills goes where she’s needed. She thought she’d be spending the year working in emergency rooms all over the country overwhelmed with patients suffering from COVID-19. However, that hasn’t turned out to be the case.
A new string of wildfires along the West Coast has turned up the heat on travel nursing. Instead of working in a hospital, a small group of critical care providers is taking care of first responders in fire camps in California, Washington, and Oregon.
They are there to make sure local firefighters have immediate access to medical care as they work around the clock to put out the flames. Find out what it’s like to work on the ground in the middle of unprecedented wildfires.
From Unemployed to Travel Nursing
The pandemic has taken a toll on Mills and her finances. She lost two jobs on the same day earlier this year, working at a dermatology clinic and plastic surgeon’s office. With no way to pay her bills and keep food on the table for her 3-year-old son, she eventually applied for a job in travel nursing. She thought it would be a great opportunity to see new places, expand her skills as a care provider, and help those in need. She soon enlisted with Aya Healthcare, a travel nursing agency in San Diego.
While many of the program’s 45 travel nurses were sent to hospitals throughout the state, Mills and a few of her colleagues volunteered to work at fire camps to help the brave men and women working on the front lines of the crisis. The company set up the arrangement using contracts from the California Department of Public Health.
The Increasing Intensity of Wildfire Season
The state of California is no stranger to wildfires, but 2020 is pushing the region to the limit. On top of the pandemic, the state is dealing with one of the worst wildfires on record. According to Cal Fire, more than 3.4 million acres have burned in California this year alone.
The need for travel nurses in fire camps is a new phenomenon. The state used to have just one EMT or paramedic on the scene in case the firefighters needed medical care. They often treated minor burns, heat exhaustion, respiratory infections, and other medical emergencies.
Things changed in 2018 when Cal Fire began contracting with the California Emergency Medical Services Authority. Lynne Tolmachoff, a spokeswoman for Cal Fire, says, “Bringing in the doctors, nurses and EMTs, that bolsters the level of care that they can give for anybody that comes in and needs it. We’re obviously going to more fires, we’re going to larger fires, particularly this year. With that comes more injuries.”
The California Medical Assistance Team is responsible for responding to medical and public health emergencies around the state, but the recent crisis has been overwhelming. To increase its numbers, the agency hired a group of travel nurses. Officials say that as of Friday of last week, there were 37 medical workers, including three travel nurses, stationed at six fire base camps across the state.
Working on the Front Lines
Mills says the crisis has been challenging and rewarding in its own right. She’s used to working in a doctor’s office, where everything seems to fall into place, but anything goes when you’re working in a fire camp. Travel nurses had just 24 hours’ notice that they were being reassigned, so Mills had to think on her feet and be ready for anything.
Recalling her experiences, she says, “These guys are just super inspiring. The firemen are the nicest, most gracious people I have ever met. I honestly didn’t know what their job entailed — wildfire fighting — because I’m from Maine. That doesn’t exist out there, really. I learned a lot about how their job works and the kind of injuries that they sustain.”
She used her knowledge of plastic surgery and dermatology to treat a range of abrasions, wounds, and burns. Providers also had to contend with sprains, smoke inhalation, chest pain, poison oak, and even bee stings, all of which were taking a toll on the firefighters. Those with major burns or critical injuries were sent to local hospitals.
If you walk around a fire camp, you will see a makeshift living space filled with tents and emergency vehicles. This is a place where firefighters can rest, eat, change their clothes, and escape the heat. Staff members are standing by in case of emergency.
Working with these brave first responders was eye-opening for Mills and her colleagues. She got to see firefighters in action as they risked everything to save the communities they love. It was also shocking to see so much destruction, including orange, smoky skies that make it difficult to breathe. Working as a travel nurse put the situation in perspective.
Climate change is adding fuel to these fires. Dry brush, excessive temperatures, and limited rainfall have made the state’s forests more susceptible to wildfires. According to Cal Fire, the length of fire season is estimated to have increased by 75 days across the Sierras in recent years and seems to correspond with an increase in the extent of forest fires across the state.
That’s why “fire season” is looking more like a “fire year.”
According to a study published in Earth’s Future in 2019, since the early 1970s, California wildfires have increased in size eightfold. The annual burned area has grown by nearly 500%.
Here’s a big thanks to the brave men and women working on the front lines of this crisis. We should see more travel nurses working as these fires continue to heat up.