Research from the University of Montana indicates that the average annual number of large wildfires in the west has more than doubled since 1970. The trend is particularly pronounced in the Northern Rockies where large wildfires are 10 times more common and the area burned is 45 times greater.
The brave souls tasked with fighting these fires are called wildland firefighters. These individuals are highly trained but woefully underpaid given the dangers of the job.
What’s more, a slow-moving and dysfunctional workers’ compensation system has forced many wildland firefighters and their families to rely on crowdsourcing platforms like GoFundMe after an on-the-job injury.
Michelle Koch Hart’s husband and former wildland firefighter, Tim Hart, died while jumping out of a plane in New Mexico to fight a wildfire. More than 5 months after his death, Michelle continues to wait for the federal workers’ compensation program to cover the fatal accident and provide her with the support she so desperately needs.
In the meantime, the bills are piling up.
First, there’s the $30,000 bill for the air ambulance that rushed Tim to the hospital, then a $3,000 bill for anesthesia, and an unexplained $1,030 bill from the Department of Agriculture.
Michelle’s workers’ compensation claim is taking so long to process that she’s been forced to turn to several nonprofits for help, including the West Yellowstone Smokejumpers Welfare Fund, which set up a GoFundMe page knowing more bills were coming and help from the federal government may not be.
Wildland firefighter injury statistics
Wildfires are unpredictable and dangerous. Firefighters face a number of risks, including:
- Hit-by-tree accidents
- Vehicle-related accidents
- Slip and falls
- Chainsaw cuts
- Equipment malfunctions
On top of all of that, microscopic particles from wildfires, called PM2.5, cause inflammation that can lead to serious respiratory and heart problems. This is why most people are told to stay inside, close the windows, and turn on a HEPA filter when wildfires are raging nearby. Of course, wildland firefighters run toward the smoke.
Let’s take a look at some statistics from 2020:
An Honor Society member who excelled at science and math, Trenton had just finished his freshman year at Montana State University. Trenton’s sister is also a wildland firefighter.
Can wildfire fighters and their families receive workers’ compensation benefits?
Workers’ compensation is a form of insurance that provides financial benefits to employees who are injured on the job. It’s a no-fault insurance system, which means that injured workers can receive benefits regardless of who’s at fault for the injury.
Workers’ compensation laws are primarily intended to ensure that employees who are injured at work receive compensation for their injuries. However, workers’ compensation also protects employers by prohibiting (in most cases) injured employees from filing personal injury lawsuits against employers based on work-related injuries.
When a wildland firefighter gets hurt on the job, they can file a claim under the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (FECA) with the Department of Labor’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP).
If approved, FECA workers’ compensation benefits may cover:
- Reasonable and necessary medical expenses (doctor’s visits, hospital bills, prescriptions, etc.)
- Wage loss benefits
- Death benefits for certain dependents
Unfortunately, wildland firefighters are being left to care for themselves as a result of a workers’ compensation system that is slow-moving and oftentimes dysfunctional.
Problems with the workers’ compensation process
Firefighters who handle claims by themselves are often denied or have their claims sent back due to simple clerical errors.
What’s more, even when a claim is ultimately approved, the OWCP sometimes takes months to process the claim and authorize treatment.
The all-too-common delays force firefighters to pay for bills out of pocket or through their own insurance. As a result, many firefighters are overwhelmed with calls from creditors, fall behind in their mortgage payments, and end up applying for food stamps or even dipping into their children’s college funds.
According to a recent report, about 400 people are responsible for handling more than 200,000 active claims every year, about 93% of which are classified as traumatic injuries.
A 2014 probe supported what many firefighters have complained about. The OWCP takes months to process claims and fails to pay bills in a timely manner, prompting some employees to not report work-related injuries or illnesses.
What’s more, many doctors have stopped treating wildland firefighters out of fear that OWCP won’t pay them.
Alternatives and a little bit of hope
Forced to fend for themselves and continue providing for their families, some firefighters have turned to organizations like the Wildland Firefighter Foundation and the West Yellowstone Smokejumpers Welfare Fund, or crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe for help.
Fortunately, there may be help on the horizon.
Thanks to advocates like the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, Colorado Representative Joe Neguse and a small bipartisan group of lawmakers have introduced a series of bills that, if passed, would overhaul federal firefighter pay, benefits, and classification.
On top of that, President Joe Biden signed legislation that would allot $600 million to help wildland firefighters.
Although it appears there may be help on the way, the federal workers’ compensation system remains extremely difficult to navigate. Injured wildland firefighters should consider reaching out to a workers’ compensation attorney for help getting the benefits they are owed.