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.”