Claims likely to derail firefighter benefit effort

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

PHOENIX (AP) -- Financial claims from the families of some firefighters who died in an Arizona wildfire this summer will likely sidetrack an effort in the Legislature to give extra benefits to survivors of the part-time crew members.

House Speaker Andy Tobin and Rep. John Kavanagh both say the chance of pushing though a package to even out the full-time and part-time survivor benefits is in doubt. The families of part-time firefighters received far fewer benefits than full-timers.

The Republicans said they've heard from fellow lawmakers who believe claims seeking compensation are likely to delay any action. Families of a dozen members of Prescott's Granite Mountain Hotshots filed claims seeking more than $220 million from the state, Prescott and Yavapai County last week, joining the mother of another firefighter already seeking compensation.

Kavanagh, who heads the House Appropriations Committee, said the families of part-timers have received large payouts from the federal government and each also has support from charities that collected millions in donations.

"So the immediate needs are, fortunately, taken care of," Kavanagh said Friday. "I think most members will want to see how the lawsuits end."

The House Public Safety, Military and Regulatory Affairs Committee held hearings in October on ways to add benefits for the families of the part-timers. Some had complained that they were short-changed because they received lower benefits and pension payouts and lacked health insurance afforded to full-time members of the crew.

Nineteen members of the Hotshot crew died June 30 when winds shifted during the Yarnell Hill Fire and trapped the men in a brush-choked bowl. More than 100 homes were destroyed in Yarnell, northwest of Phoenix.

On Thursday, families of 12 crew members joined the list of those accusing public agencies of recklessness and negligence in the handling of the wildfire and pursuing financial settlements. The mother of firefighter Grant McKee was the first to file a claim, and more than 30 property owners in Yarnell followed.

Prescott has said it's not liable for the deaths or property loss and denied claims previously filed.

Tom Kelly, an attorney for the 12 families, said the men's deaths were preventable and the families want to ensure "this type of tragedy does not happen again."

Tobin, the House speaker, said the claims, which must be filed before lawsuits can be brought against public agencies, are a game-changer.

"Clearly, I think now with all the lawsuits going on ... we have to wait for any action on benefits," Tobin said. "I'd be lying to you if I (said) I hadn't heard from members that said, not so much that they're anxious with lawsuits, as much as they're like, as a legal matter, are you able to move forward or should we wait."

Kavanagh echoed that sentiment.

"Some of these individual families may be getting $10 (million), $15 million," he said. "Unless there's a showing that a particular family is having a financial problem, we need to wait."

Both lawmakers are key to any action in the House. Appropriations measures must go through Kavanagh's committee, and Tobin controls which legislation reaches the floor for a vote.

Rep. Justin Pierce, R-Mesa, chairman of the public safety committee, said Friday he agreed with Tobin and Kavanagh that the claims and expected lawsuits are a major issue and that lawmakers will likely try to focus instead on ensuring that the same benefits issues don't crop up in the future.

"It's already a difficult calculation to try to figure out what's fair and equitable," Pierce said. "Now you throw a lawsuit into the mix, and it's impossible to figure out what's fair and equitable."

Of the 13 part-timers, five had wives and children who won't receive health benefits like the full-timers' families. They also won't receive a lifetime pension payment equal to the firefighters' yearly pay.

But they will get many of the other benefits, including a one-time federal death benefit of $328,000, workers' compensation pay and free tuition at state universities.

The average ongoing yearly benefit for the families of full-time firefighters is $112,000, compared with $25,000 for part-timers' survivors.

Following the Yarnell Hill Fire, workplace safety investigators and the state's Industrial Commission agreed that the Arizona Forestry Division mismanaged the blaze and firefighting crews.

A report by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health found that the Forestry Division knowingly put protection of property ahead of safety and should have pulled crews out earlier. The Industrial Commission issued three citations and levied nearly $560,000 in fines against the division, which is appealing.

The workplace safety agency's report stands in stark contrast to an earlier investigation commissioned by the Forestry Division, which found that state fire officials communicated poorly but followed proper procedures when the firefighters were killed.

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