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Prescott united in grief, divided over firefighter survivor benefits

After Arizona's Yarnell Hill fire, Prescott is torn over survivors' benefits for the families of 13 part-time Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew members killed in the blaze.

August 16, 2013|By Cindy Carcamo
  • Prescott firefighter Wade Ward visits the site where 19 firefighters died on June 30 fighting the Yarnell Hill fire. Thirteen of those killed were technically part-time workers, and their families are seeking full-time survivor benefits.
Prescott firefighter Wade Ward visits the site where 19 firefighters died… (Matt York / Associated Press )

TUCSON — Business owners Dave Michelson and Matt Brassard remember the outpouring of support and dollars when they held a fundraiser in Prescott for people whose houses were damaged in the Yarnell Hill fire and the survivors of the 19 firefighters who died fighting the blaze.

The community was unified in grief, Brassard said.

"It was amazing, the amount of people who came out in support," he added.

Now, a conflict over whether to extend full survivors' benefits to the families of 13 firefighters killed on the job June 30 looms over Prescott, creating an uneasiness in the community.

The community remains united, Michelson said, though he concedes the controversy has "hurt it a little bit."

Six members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew were full-time city employees, and their families are entitled to full-time survivors benefits. Most notably, they're eligible for healthcare, though they must make regular premium payments.

But the other 13 were part-time workers, and Prescott officials have said state law prevents the city from giving their survivors the benefits of full-time employees. This week city officials had something new to say about the benefits — Prescott can't afford them.

It would cost the city an estimated $51 million over the next 60 years and would mean cuts to vital services to the people of Prescott, city spokesman Peter Wertheim said Thursday in a statement.

If the city were to make a one-time lump-sum payment of $24 million, it would be three times the entire budget of the Prescott Fire Department.

Regardless, Roxanne Warneke, wife of fallen firefighter and Hemet native Billy Warneke, said families of all on the crew should be treated the same.

"The entire fire crew — they were on that fire shoulder-to-shoulder, using the same type of tools," Warneke said. "They had the same type of risks. They should have the same equal benefits."

Billy Warneke, 25, was one of the 13 who the city said didn't qualify for benefits.

Permanent firefighters qualify for pensions, healthcare and life insurance, among other benefits. Seasonal workers do not.

That means, for example, that the widow of a permanent firefighter is eligible to receive health insurance and a monthly tax-free pension payment for the rest of her life.

Juliann Ashcraft, the widow of Andrew Ashcraft, 29, has been the most outspoken survivor regarding the controversy.

She was told last month that she didn't qualify for benefits — including income and health insurance — because even though her husband was working full-time hours when he died, he was a part-time employee on paper.

"I hope sometime soon they begin to respond with some compassion, instead of ignoring my repeated requests to meet and speaking to me only through press releases and negative attacks," Ashcraft said in a statement.

Now the community is torn. Some support the city, some the families. Some don't know how to feel or what to think.

A few weeks after the fatal fire, Michelson and Brassard — with some help from the city — held the Prescott Strong Fundraiser in the city's touristy Whiskey Row. They raised $200,000.

About 30% will go to those who lost their homes in Yarnell and the rest to the 19 firefighter families, Michelson said.

Michelson, owner of the Palace Restaurant & Saloon in Prescott, said he believed all the families should get the benefits.

"I think most people feel like I do," he said. "I know it'll cost the city … but they died in the line of duty to protect all of us."

Brassard, owner of Matt's Saloon, said that while he would love to see all the families receive the benefits they deserve, he understood the city's position.

"The city is in a very tough spot. My belief is that their hands are tied, legally," he said.

Brassard hopes the state will help fill in the benefits gap.

Arizona lawmakers have said they will consider bills to have the state pay full employee benefits to any firefighter who dies on state land, including those killed in the Yarnell Hill fire.

Such legislation has yet to be drafted and would probably be considered when lawmakers return to session in January, said Rey Torres, communications director for the Arizona House majority caucus of Republicans. The idea of a bill is supported by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, he added.

Warneke, 25, who is due to give birth in December, said she and a few of the other widows couldn't wait until next year to see benefits. She hopes the state will step up where the city hasn't. She said she was writing a letter to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, asking her to call a special session so lawmakers can vote on a bill soon.

"I don't have the luxury to wait until after I give birth to my daughter," she said. "I won't have any type of health insurance and she won't either."

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