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Fallen Arizona firefighter's family appeals for lifetime benefits

August 07, 2013|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske
  • The Ashcrafts in an undated family photo. From left, Choice, Juliann, Tate, Shiloh, Ryder and Andrew, a member of the Granite Mountain hotshots who died in the Yarnell Hill fire along with 18 colleagues on June 30.
The Ashcrafts in an undated family photo. From left, Choice, Juliann, Tate,… (Handout )

Killeen, Texas —

Relatives of one of the 19 Arizona hotshots killed by a wildfire have launched an online petition to force the city of Prescott, Ariz., to provide his widow and young children with the same survivor benefits as other firefighters' families.

Andrew Ashcraft, 29, was a three-year city employee and one of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew members who were overrun by flames June 30 while battling a fast-moving blaze in the small town of Yarnell, about 35 miles south of Prescott. Only one member of the crew survived.

Ashcraft’s widow says she filed for the same benefits -- including income and health benefits -- as other families of hotshots killed in the Yarnell Hill fire, but was told last month that she didn't qualify because even though her husband was working full time when he died, he was technically a part-time employee.

“I want to be able to just be mourning my husband, be supporting my children, be figuring out what our new normal is,” Juliann Ashcraft, 28, said in a statement Wednesday. “As shocked as I was that my husband went to work and never came home, I’m equally shocked in how the city has treated our family since then.”

The mother of four has been unemployed and living without health insurance. She had worked as a paralegal but quit two months before her husband’s death to stay home with their children: Ryder, 6; Shiloh, 4; Tate, 2; and 18-month-old Choice, who was born prematurely. The couple figured they could afford it because Andrew Ashcraft was working more than 40 hours a week as a hotshot, had scored a raise to more than $15 an hour and was supposed to get bumped up to full time with benefits, according to his father, Tom Ashcraft, 52, of nearby Prescott Valley.

Prescott spokesman Pete Wertheim told the Associated Press that six of the firefighters were permanent employees, while 13, including Ashcraft, were seasonal. The city cannot legally reclassify the fallen part-time firefighters posthumously as full time employees so their families can receive survivor benefits, he said. 

Wertheim did not return calls from The Times on Wednesday.

Tom Ashcraft, operations manager at a cabinet company, said he started the online petition to draw attention to the plight of his family and others. 

“I don’t really care what the documents say on the employee files. When there’s a fire out there and those 20 guys are out fighting it, not one of them would say, ‘I’m not sleeping out there in the dirt with you today; I’m a temporary employee.’ All of them lost their lives and all of them should be paid full benefits,” he told The Times.

Other Granite Mountain Hotshot families attended a briefing by the Ashcraft family outside the local courthouse Wednesday to show their support.

“We believe that we can develop a voice based on the number of people involved in this,” Tom Ashcraft said of the petition, noting, “We have the support of our city, Prescott and surrounding cities, the support of our state, and we want to reach others in other states.”

Tom Ashcraft said city officials had never apologized or attempted to console his family. Now it’s too late for words, he said, but not too late to pay them their due.

“They’ve done the bare minimum and we want much more than that. We want the full benefits,” he said.

The family has gathered more than 3,000 signatures from local residents as well as firefighters from across the country. Each signature on the Change.org petition -- which features a photo of Ashcraft, his wife and children -- is forwarded as an email to Prescott officials.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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