An Oregon tragedy may reform firefighter death benefits

An Oregon tragedy may reform firefighter death benefits

20 December 2013

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USA — Shortly before nightfall, the Sikorsky S-61 helicopter evacuating firefighters struck a tree and crashed in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in Northern California. Four survivors were pulled from the wreckage, but seven Oregon firefighters died, as well as a Forest Service employee, and a pilot from Oregon.

Only the Forest Service employee’s family received death benefits. The families of the others did not because they were privately contracted firefighters.

“Contract firefighters don’t get death benefits,” said Matt McNally, a spokesman for Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, said in an phone interview this week. “They fight on the same fire lines, but don’t get the same death benefits.”

That tragedy, which occurred back in 2008, spurred Merkley recently to introduce a bill (Senate Bill 1628, Fallen Wildland Firefighters Fair Compensation Act of 2013) providing death benefits to families of privately contracted firefighters.

Critics are likely to point out that these firefighters work for the private sector, and their families should not get such benefits. But these firefighters are often battling blazes on federal land, and are contracted by the U.S. government. In fact, they often perform a vital service the U.S. government needs to fight fires.

“Thanks to advances in firefighting, we now have to have aerial support for battling forest fires,” McNally said. “We have to contract out for that.”

And private sector firefighters are trained and treated like those from the public sector. “Hiring private sector firefighters is a trend going back 30 years,” said Debbie Miley, the executive director of the National Wildfire Suppression Association, in an earlier email interview. “We are trained to the same standards as the Forestry Service as well as state and local requirements. In fact, many of our workers are former Forestry Service employees.”

McNally said that they haven’t had a lot of opposition on Capitol Hill to the idea. But time may be short. Firefighters reported this year as the worst they had ever faced. And as the recent tragedy in Arizona revealed (the report on the disaster was just released earlier this month), it’s about to get a lot more dangerous out there.

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