By Tim Gaynor
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Nineteen members of an Arizona hotshot firefighting crew killed by a fickle wildfire all shared the same risks, but the widow of one is complaining that a two-tier compensation system meant her young family would be denied full survivor benefits.
The elite firefighters died in June in the worst U.S. wildland fire tragedy in 80 years. They were engulfed by wind-whipped flames in seconds as they tried to extinguish a blaze that forced evacuations and destroyed scores of homes in and around the tiny town of Yarnell.
Since their deaths, a political fight has emerged over a system of compensation for survivors in which benefits for next-of-kin will depend on whether a firefighter was considered a full-time or seasonal employee.
"As shocked as I was that my husband went to work and never came home, I'm equally shocked in how the city has treated our family since then," Juliann Ashcraft, 28, said in an interview with CBS News that aired this week.
All dependents of the deceased members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots will receive a federal payment of $328,000. But while dependents of six full-time firefighters will get additional financial benefits and lifetime health insurance from the city, the next-of-kin of 13 others deemed seasonal workers are not entitled to such help.
Ashcraft, who says her husband Andrew worked full-time hours on a year-round basis, has said she was counting on the lifetime benefits to help raise her four children - the youngest just 18 months old - but was told she was not entitled to them.
"I said to them, 'My husband was a full-time employee, he went to work full time for you,'" she told CBS, "and their response to me was, 'Perhaps there was a communication issue in your marriage.'"
Ashcraft could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
Prescott city spokesman Peter Wertheim declined to comment on the case of any specific Hotshot crew member. He said the city was unable to reclassify the 13 seasonal firefighters posthumously as full-time employees.
'WE NEED TO MAKE IT RIGHT'
Amid a particularly deadly fire season in the U.S. West - where at least 22 people have been killed by wildfires - the Arizona legislature is now taking up the fight to ensure all first responders are treated the same.
House Speaker Andy Tobin is drafting retroactive measures to give full benefits to any responder who dies in the line of duty on state lands - among them the Hotshots, who were trapped when the lightning-sparked Yarnell Hill Fire suddenly changed direction.
"Everybody was just surprised ... they couldn't fully comprehend the shortfall of the part-timer benefit package," Tobin told Reuters. "We need to make it right, and I think that this process will help do that."
While the bill, which would qualify survivors such as Juliann Ashcraft for full benefits including life insurance and health care, is at an early stage, Tobin said it had bipartisan support in the Arizona legislature.
A second bill that Tobin, a Republican, is working on would ensure that the state covers the costs of the death-related pensions provided by Prescott, a small city of about 40,000 residents.
"It probably should have been handled long ago," he said, "but nobody could ever have comprehended 19 men losing their lives in a fire like this."
An investigation into the Yarnell Hill Fire is currently underway, and findings are expected to be released in September.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston; and Jackie Frank)