Arizona Firefighter Families Battle for Benefits

Mj 618_348_firefighter families battle for benefits
David Kadlubowski / Getty Images

One Tuesday morning in August, six weeks after her husband died in the worst American firefighter tragedy since 9/11, Juliann Ashcraft sat in her living room in Prescott, Arizona, watching three rambunctious kids. Four-year-old Shiloh and two-year-old Tate were battling with foam pirate swords; 18-month-old Choice was making a break for a flight of stairs. Ryder, six, was due home from kindergarten. “There are days when everything runs smoothly,” Ashcraft said. “And then there are days when all four of them . . . ” She abandoned the thought as Tate lunged for a coffee cup.

In June, when 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots – an elite firefighting crew we wrote about in the October issue – were killed fighting a wildfire, they left behind more than a legacy of bravery and service. They left 10 wives, three fiancées, 13 children (with three more on the way), and a lot of financial uncertainty. All 19 families will receive a onetime payment of at least $328,000 from the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program, and a share of private donations. But only the families of the crew’s six full-time members get benefits like health and life insurance, and pensions. Though they regularly worked 100-plus-hour weeks, the other crew members were classified as “temporary” or “seasonal” labor, and thus were ineligible for benefits. To many families, that doesn’t seem right.

From a strictly legal standpoint, the City of Prescott doesn’t owe the seasonal Hotshots anything. According to the city’s attorney, to retroactively reclassify an employee isn’t just impossible; it’s illegal. They wish they could help, but their hands are tied. “We’re not IBM,” city spokesman Pete Wertheim said. “We can’t open up the checkbook. . . . We have to abide by the law.”

They were also supposed to abide by federal guidelines that mandate each Hotshot crew have a minimum of seven “career,” or full-time, firefighters. Granite Mountain had six. Before the 2013 fire season began, the crew’s superintendent, Eric Marsh, had requested two additional full-time positions and was turned down. Yet when the department submitted its annual certification checklist, it listed seven full-time employees. The seventh was Chris MacKenzie, whom the city classified as “seasonal” and who never received benefits.

Like many towns, Prescott faces budgetary struggles, and when it came to funding the Hotshots, it was willing to cut corners. The Granite Mountain crew once included eight full-time positions: a superintendent, a captain, three squad bosses, and three lead firefighters. Yet when Andrew Ashcraft was promoted to a lead firefighter in 2012, he wasn’t given full-time status – though the Hotshot he replaced had been. “The city took advantage [of the Hotshots],” says Juliann Ashcraft, “because the economy was bad and they loved their jobs so much.”

The city has handled things less than smoothly. In August, a month after the Hotshots’ deaths, the Prescott City Council held a hearing to discuss rebuilding the crew. Council members spent an hour and a half listening to updates about issues like an upcoming mountain-bike race and sidewalk repairs as dozens of firefighter families sat in the chambers waiting. Eventually the council ran out of time and voted to postpone the discussion until a later date. (A follow-up meeting yielded no substantive developments.) When Mayor Marlin Kuykendall was asked about Juliann Ashcraft later, he said, “She’s a neat little lady . . . but money took hold in this situation real fast.”

Some outside help may be on the way. Andy Tobin, the speaker of the Arizona state legislature, whose district includes Prescott, is drafting a bill that will provide benefits to any first responder killed in the line of duty, regardless of employment status. To many, it’s the only fair thing to do. As Roxanne Warneke, the widow of Hotshot Billy Warneke, told ‘The Arizona Republic’: “No one says [to the seasonal firefighters], ‘You stand 20 yards behind the guys with benefits.’ . . . They’re all out there on the firelines, fighting the same fire.”

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