Even after leaving that fire, it never left her.
Back at the station, and at home, he struggled with recurring nightmares and disturbing, intrusive thoughts. Every time she saw trees, she hallucinated that flames came out of them.
For four months, he was almost without sleep and vomiting every day, becoming a semi-functional zombie. Bahnmiller developed the irrational belief that if he went to sleep, his fire crew would die. Sleep was not relief, but a portal to something worse. She couldn’t, and then she didn’t want to, sleep, for fear the nightmares would engulf her.
The Lodge fire was not just in your mind completely occupied your mind. He set her down such a dark path that she eventually considered suicide.
“I was very worried about the fire, but at the same time I was trying to push it away,” she said. “I felt very sharp, especially when trying to rest. These images came running to my mind.
Experts say his experience is a common example of trauma leading to post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide among wildland firefighters: Like many, he suffered no physical injuries but fought an out-of-control fire, heightening a sense of helplessness and anxiety. that firefighters find particularly stressful.
Bahnmiller was raised not to give in to pain or fear, or even acknowledge it. His father was a naval officer attached to a Marine Corps unit at Camp Pendleton. Stoicism, service and success were family bywords, part of what she calls her “dad mythology” of hers.
When he turned 30, he spent months riding his motorcycle across the country. After seeing a pregnant woman flip her car in Maine and wishing he had her training to help her, Bahnmiller thought it was time she dedicated herself to serving the public.
“I was raised to do my duty,” he said.
She became certified as a paramedic and worked for a private ambulance company and in a hospital trauma room. She entered the Cal Fire Basic Academy and was a rapidly rising star, graduating second in her officer academy class. She is now a battalion chief.
Women make up only 6% of Cal Fire’s fire department.
Now 54, Bahnmiller often talks about resilience: like when you face your worst demons, when you fear you’ll never regain your footing, you somehow find a way to get back on your feet again. Like when steel gets stronger after passing through fire.
“I thought I had to fix this because firefighters solve problems. We don’t have problems that we can’t fix,” she said. “I didn’t tell anyone that I had this constant feeling that he was still standing on top of that ridge, watching the corona fire burn those people and he couldn’t stop it.
But Bahnmiller hid her grief from her boyfriend, a federal firefighter who is now her husband, who remembers her acting seemingly normal after the Lodge fire and for months afterward. She also hid it from her friends and colleagues, suffering in silence and isolating herself as much as she could.
“Even though I had a wonderful life at the time, I secretly became suicidal because I couldn’t stop it,” Bahnmiller said. He had this feeling of helplessness. We are trained to be in charge. Be decisive. To take action.
“I decided at some point that the only way to fix it was to kill myself. I became obsessed with the idea that in order to stop these images, I simply had to leave.”
Four months after the Lodge fire, Cal Fire peer support officer Steve Diaz was at the Bahnmiller station, tracking phone conversations they had about someone she thought needed counseling.
His job was to explain the agency’s support services, which are voluntary and confidential. But to Bahnmiller’s surprise, he spoke directly to her, saying, “Call this number if you ever need help.”
She was deeply in denial and was not receptive to the message. “He’s telling me about this show, and I’m thinking, ‘That’s good,’” she said. “I asked him, ‘Why are you telling me about this place?’ He said, ‘Noelle, I think you’d like to go there.’
He was offended and thought: “I’m fine. That is not a place for me. I’m fine.”
Bahnmiller’s life was falling apart. She isolated herself and stopped meeting friends for coffee. He began to fill himself with work, taking all the overtime that was offered to him.
One day, months after the fire, an old colleague said, “What’s wrong with you? You’re not yourself.” She just told him that she hadn’t been sleeping.
She left work intending to shoot herself as well. “I was driving to my boyfriend’s house to kill myself,” she says. “I felt trapped. I didn’t know there were other ways out. I decided the only way to fix it was to kill myself.”
Instead, for reasons he still doesn’t understand, Bahnmiller stopped, reached into his uniform pocket, looked up the helpline number, and called.
Bahnmiller agreed to attend a “trauma camp” for a week of intensive therapy.
The camp, in Napa County, is operated by therapists with extensive experience in the trauma inherent in high-risk professions, such as firefighters and police. Cal Fire pays for the program.
Doctors diagnosed Bahnmiller with acute post-traumatic stress. She attended group and individual therapy classes, yoga and meditation, and learned relaxing breathing techniques. A doctor also guided her through a realistic recreation of a traumatic event as a way to reprogram how her mind processes the trauma.
This combination of approaches can have a powerful therapeutic effect. “It was like a landslide. I left completely shaken. I felt free. I wasn’t frozen at that summit. It gave me my life back,” she said.
She eventually opened up to her husband, who was shocked at the severity of her depression and grief.