DENVER – They work the front lines of the nation's most explosive wildfires, navigating treacherous terrain, dense walls of smoke and tall curtains of flame. Yet thousands of the nation's seasonal firefighters have no health insurance for themselves or their families.
Many firefighters are now asking to buy into a federal government health plan, largely out of anger over a colleague who was left with a $70,000 hospital bill after his son was born prematurely.
Their request has been bolstered by more than 125,000 signatures gathered in an online petition during this year's historic fire season in the West and the ongoing national debate over health care.
"You pray you don't get sick," said firefighter John Lauer, a member of the Tatanka Hotshots crew based in Custer, S.D., who recently worked the massive High Park Fire in northern Colorado and started the petition.
The fire crews are heroes to those in the path of the flames. Politicians praise their bravery. Grateful residents buy them pizzas and send thank-you cards.
"That's what makes the job great," Lauer said. "But sometimes I wonder to myself. I wonder if people know we're uninsured."
Firefighters do get workers' compensation if they are hurt on the job, but that doesn't cover them in the offseason.
The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, which coordinates firefighting efforts nationwide, says 15,000 wildland firefighters are on the federal payroll this year. Of that number, some 8,000 are classified as temporary seasonal employees, who work on a season-to-season basis with no guarantee of a job the following year and no access to federal benefits.
Some seasonal firefighters say they put in a year's worth of hours in six months.
In two years, the Affordable Care Act, the new federal health care law, will allow seasonal firefighters the same opportunity to buy health insurance as other uninsured Americans. But firefighters want to be able choose among the plans offered by the federal government, like other federal employees, said Cory K. Bythrow, a spokesman for the National Federation of Federal Employees, a labor union.
Mark Davis, president of the Forest Service Council of the union, estimates it would cost the federal government $17.5 million a year to pay its share of premiums for seasonal firefighters working for the Forest Service, which employs about 70 percent of federal firefighters. The rest work for the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other agencies.
The union is in talks with the Office of Personnel Management to try to extend health benefits to seasonal firefighters.
The agency declined to comment. Bythrow said he is optimistic a solution can be found.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who visited Colorado on Monday, said no firefighters had raised the insurance issue with him, but he said he would look into it.
Forest Service spokeswoman Julie Anne Overton cited one health care plan that would cost a firefighter $185 a month for individual coverage and $430 month for a family. Permanent year-round federal firefighters are paid from $24,500 to $54,000 before overtime. Seasonal workers make less, Overton said.
The case that prompted Lauer and others to start their petition drive was the 2008 birth of Nathan Ochs' son. Ochs, then a temporary seasonal wildland firefighter, had no insurance.
His wife, Constance Van Kley, said the family couldn't find health insurance at any price — though the hospital did eventually forgive most of the $70,000 bill.
Ochs subsequently became a permanent seasonal federal firefighter and got government insurance. But the experience galvanized him and others to press the government to make health coverage available to all federal wildland firefighters.
"I feel that it's unfair and that it sends a message that the work isn't valued as it should be," said Ochs, who also worked in Colorado's blazes this year.
No one disputes the dangers of the job: lightning, falling trees, a dangerous landscape, as well as smoke and flames. Since 2003, 157 people have died battling wildfires in the U.S., according to the International Association of Wildland Fire. Injury statistics were unavailable.
Public support for Lauer's petition, posted at change.org, mushroomed during the High Park Fire near Fort Collins and the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs. Together the two blazes damaged or destroyed more than 600 homes, killed three people and charred 162 square miles. Petition signers came from across the country.
"I'm insulted for them, and I'm insulted for our country," said Polly Tarpley, a resident of Poulsbo, Wash. Asked why she signed the petition, she quickly replied: "Oh, my god! That should be a pretty obvious question. These men and women work their tails off in extremely dangerous conditions."
"We should be more than willing to pay them health insurance," said Pam Shinkle, owner of Uncle Sam's Pancake House in Manitou Springs, a quaint mountain town that was briefly evacuated during the Waldo Canyon blaze. Dozens of firefighters helped to sustain business at Uncle Sam's while ash fell from the sky and flames roared just over a nearby hill.
"We love our firemen," Shinkle said. "They did a great job. They had a huge fire, and they got it out within two weeks, when they had been saying months."
Davis, of the federal employees union, argued that the cost to the government would be offset by reduced turnover. The attrition rate for temporary seasonal workers in the Forest Service is four times higher than that for permanent seasonal workers, said Davis, and he believes the lack of health insurance is a factor.
"You would save money in the long run by reduced training costs, reduced safety issues, accidents, that sort of thing," Davis said.
"These people put their lives on the line every day to protect our homes, our businesses, our entire communities," Bythrow said. "We believe that they shouldn't have to rely on luck. They shouldn't have to rely on the generosity of one hospital or one doctor."
Associated Press writers Ivan Moreno and P. Solomon Banda in Denver and Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyo., contributed to this report.