USA –-John Lauer and the other Tatanka Hotshots scrape the smoldering ground with Pulaskis until their hands blister, suck down wildfire smoke until they gag and suffer periodic rain showers of chemical flame retardant, all without complaint.
They also do it without health insurance.
The seasonal firefighters swarming over Colorado and the West to protect life and home this tinder-dry summer don’t have federal health insurance and can’t buy into it if they want to.
After years of waiting, Lauer and others are fanning the flames of the health-care debate, with their quest for access to the insurance quickly going viral. An Internet petition claims more than 100,000 signatures, and Lauer and other firefighters are taking cellphone breaks between fire shifts in the West to promote the idea.
Tales of temporary firefighters or their families suffering from expensive ailments or putting off care are “a dime a dozen,” Lauer said from southeastern Wyoming, on the Russells Camp fire.
Lauer is in his sixth temporary season and will soon start University of Denver law school classes but said he worries more about other families.
“The issue really hit home when my godson was born prematurely and his folks got stuck with a huge hospital bill,” Lauer said.
That family, Nate Ochs and Constance Van Kley in South Dakota, now has insurance through Ochs’ permanent job. But more than half the Tatanka crew is temporary, without federal insurance, Van Kley said.
“A lot of them are in that phase of beginning to sort out a career and family,” she said. “Being uninsured is stressful even when you’re 19.”
The U.S. Forest Service said people who sign on for the difficult outdoor work of firefighting know the advantages and drawbacks when they come in.
“Of course if they are hurt on the fire line, they’d be covered under workman’s comp, but due to the fact they are seasonal, we do not provide every benefit a permanent employee receives,” said Jace Ratzlaff, a legislative-affairs spokesman in the service’s Colorado region.
Those who want to stay seasonal, rather than seek a year-round position with full benefits, “love the fact they can make quite a lot of money in a short span of time and use that to support another passion or career outside of the season,” he said.
Federal wildland fighters can make $30,000 or more in six months, including a lot of overtime on big burns. Base pay is about $14 an hour, said Oregon-based firefighter Aaron Alpe.
“It becomes a moral issue, it really does,” said Casey Judd, president of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, an employee group in Idaho.
“I love to be in the woods and be outdoors. And I’ve made lifelong friends,” said Alpe, 29. “It’s more or less what I’ve dedicated most of my life to, and all we’re asking for is that the federal government hands us a basic health plan.”
For fire-related injuries, the Forest Service can take a long time to pay claims, Alpe said. And some health problems crop up in the winter off months, when long-term exposure to smoke and soot can lead to bronchitis and constant coughing.
Alpe’s winter job logging beetle-kill pines does not provide insurance either, so he buys a personal policy.
Alpe, Lauer and other firefighters said offering an insurance buy-in would create more stability in the ranks and attract more prospects.
The federal Office of Personnel Management, which alongside congressional action can influence benefits policy, said it is looking into the insurance question.
Firefighters said they have long lobbied U.S. Sen. Mark Udall’s office for help, as a Western leader. Udall’s Colorado spokesman said Friday the office was studying the issue.