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Arizona wildfire survivors still searching for benefits

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Now that FEMA has ruled it won’t financially help out families who were victims of a deadly forest fire in June, the state of Arizona might be the only government body to come to their rescue.

The Yarnell Hill Fire that burned thousands of acres, killed 19 hotshot firefighters and destroyed more than 100 homes in June also raised serious questions about benefits for “part-time” workers who risk their lives but might not be fully insured by their employers. In addition, it left displaced uninsured homeowners wondering what they might recover in the wake of a fire that started on federal land.

The largest controversy, though, has swirled around the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who died in the blaze. Of those, 13 were classified as seasonal or part-time. As a result, while their families received compensation for their sacrifices, the survivors of the six full-time workers will receive considerably more.

The seasonal firefighter families, led by the widow of one who died, have organized a public awareness campaign. Their goal: to receive the same benefits earmarked for the full-time firefighters’ survivors. But so far, despite widespread support, only the state seems willing to contribute.

First, the city of Prescott, which employed the firefighters, said it was legally obligated to treat the two types of workers differently when it came to benefits.

“It has been mistakenly suggested that the City made a promise that it would somehow find a way to retroactively reclassify temporary employees as permanent employees so the families can receive additional survivor benefits. The City cannot do this legally; the benefits for programs such as health insurance and the public safety employee pension can only be provided if the individual was enrolled in those programs when the death occurred,” the city said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Arizona House Speaker Andy Tobin has been crafting legislation that he hopes can restore some parity to the benefits for the seasonal firefighters’ families.

The state had looked to the Obama Administration, via FEMA, for financial assistance for the displaced homeowners. But FEMA put the burden back on the state, advising Gov. Jan Brewer that, in its view, the damage to “uninsured private residences from this event was not of such severity and magnitude as to be beyond the capabilities of the state, affected local governments, and voluntary agencies.”

State Republicans cried politics in the wake of the decision, and vowed to pursue the issue further. But the state legislature remains the only hope of financial relief.

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