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Legal Blow For Families Of Wildland Firefighters Killed In 2003

Ransdell family

Contract firefighters can often be found on the front lines. They’re usually indistinguishable from government firefighters. But a recent court ruling has re-emphasized that if they’re killed in the line of duty, there’s a big difference.

Eleven years ago a group ofwildlandfirefighters from Oregon were killed after working the fire lines in Idaho.

“On the way back home they had a collision with a semi-truck,” Dale Ransdell recalled. “All eight of them died in a fiery crash.”

Ransdell lost his 23-year old son Mark that day. Unbelievably, Mark was his second son to die in an automobile accident.

“So, we’ve lost two kids, all I can tell you is that it’s always on your mind, that it never goes away,” he said.

All the more so because of what’s happened since. The Ransdells and other families of the killed firefighters applied for survivor benefits designed for federal public safety officers. They were denied. They appealed and were denied again. Now, a U.S. Court of Appeals has affirmed that contracted firefighters do not qualify as public safety officers.

Ransdell said he’s prepared to try to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I’m not in for the money,” he said. “Right now what I’m in it for is setting precedent because every year this is happening.”

Records show since 2003 approximately 200 wildland firefighters have died on the ground and in the air nationwide. Records indicate about a quarter of those were contractors.

Virtually all of the air crews are contracted as are about 15 percent of federal wildland fire ground crews .

Last year, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley introduced legislation to extend public safety death benefits to contracted firefighters. But that bill has not passed.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."