Eighteen large wildfires are currently burning across the west. These days you can often find contract firefighters on the front lines. They’re usually indistinguishable from government firefighters. But a recent court ruling has re-emphasized that if they’re killed in the line of duty, there’s a big difference.
Eleven years ago a van full of wildland firefighters from Oregon died after working the fire lines in Idaho.
Dale Ransdell lost his 23-year old son Mark that day. Unbelievably, Mark was his second son to die in an automobile accident.
“On the way back home they had a collision with a semi-truck,” Ransdell said. “All eight of them died in a fiery crash. So, we’ve lost two kids, and all I can tell you is that it’s always on your mind, that it never goes away.”
All the more so because of what has happened since. The Ransdells and other families of the killed firefighters applied for survivor benefits designed for federal public safety officers. They were denied. They appealed and were denied again. Now a U.S. Court of Appeals has affirmed that contracted firefighters do not qualify as public safety officers. Ransdell says he’s prepared to try to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I’m not in for the money,” Ransdell said. “Right now what I’m in it for is setting precedent because every year this is happening.”
Records show that since 2003 nearly 200 wildland firefighters have died on the ground and in the air nationwide. It’s unclear how many of those were contractors. Virtually all of the air crews are contracted as are about 15 percent of federal wildland fire ground crews . Last year, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley introduced legislation to extend public safety death benefits to contracted firefighters, but that bill has not passed.
Copyright 2014 Northwest News Network