Though the Waldo Canyon fire wreaked havoc on Colorado Springs, it brings to life the old saying that “it is an ill wind that blows no good.” Soon after President Obama visited Colorado, he issued a directive allowing temporary, seasonal firefighters employed by the federal government to purchase health insurance. Of the approximately 15,000 firefighters on the federal payroll, about 8,000 are classified as temporary and were denied the option of health insurance. They were covered by Workers Compensation, but that did not apply to any illness or injury while they were not not on the job and offered no protection for their families.

A petition that showed up on may not have hurt. More than 126,000 people signed it in about two months. Here’s the petition submitted by John Lauer:

Right now, wild fires are raging in New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona. And more are sure to come. I’m a part of a hotshot crew of firefighters. We are on call to go anywhere, at any time to fight fires in our country. It’s intense work, but my crew is like my family and we are all committed to serving our communities. Because wildfire is more common from May to October, most of us are seasonally employed. More than 90% of us return year after year and we often work the equivalent of a full year in 6-7 months. Despite this — and despite putting our lives on the line every day- we still don’t have the opportunity to buy into a government health care plan even at the most basic level.

This is because we are classified as temporary workers. I have been a wildland firefighter for 6 years and I still don’t have health insurance, but I’m one of the lucky ones. Just in my own hotshot crew, I’ve seen the damage and suffering this lack of coverage can produce. My godson, Rudy, was born prematurely. Rudy’s dad, a fellow firefighter, was stuck with $70,000 worth of hospital bills that he and his wife couldn’t pay back. All because the federal government won’t allow him to access health insurance. Another crew member’s child, who was born even more recently, required special attention in the hospital and his parents’ are now facing a $40,000 in medical bills.

Wildland firefighters face enormous risks in order to serve and protect our communities. In the past 12 years, 179 wildland firefighters have been killed in the line of duty, and the
conditions of the firefighting environment have been linked to cancer and permanent lung damage. We want federal legislation that gives us that option, but we know that Congress can
be slow moving. That’s why we are asking President Obama to extend health coverage benefits to seasonal wildland firefighters. Baby Rudy doesn’t deserve to be born into debt — his father is a hero.

After the announcement of President Obama’s decision, posted the following statement from Lauer, “This is incredible. A huge thank you to everybody who signed and supported us in this fight. The massive show of support is what caught the attention of the media and the President himself. By signing you made a giant impact in the lives of firefighters. I speak on behalf of my own crew when I say that everybody is extremely grateful for the support. This is going to make a real improvement in the lives of thousands of people and their families. Thank you.”

Let’s hear it for Power to the People. And let’s not wonder what might not have happened if it weren’t an election year, OK?

Michael Hosto