US gives temporary health insurance to seasonal firefighters

WASHINGTON, July 17 Tue Jul 17, 2012 3:20pm EDT

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WASHINGTON, July 17 (Reuters) - The federal government on Tuesday granted temporary healthcare coverage for seasonal firefighters battling U.S. wildfires this summer, a move President Barack Obama said would guarantee that those putting themselves in harm's way received the care they deserved.

The new mandate gave temporary firefighters and their families access to the same health insurance offered to full-time federal employees, with the option of continuing coverage at their own expense when the firefighting season ended.

"Each day, these Americans put themselves in grave danger to save the lives of people they never met," Obama said in a statement. "Their heroism in battling the deadly fires that have impacted states across the country this summer inspires us all."

Firefighters in mostly Western states, including Colorado, have battled for weeks to contain a spree of wildfires that have killed at least six people, displaced tens of thousands of others and destroyed hundreds of homes.

Some 15,000 firefighters are on the federal government payroll, but 8,000 of them are classified as temporary, seasonal employees, making them ineligible for federal benefits such as health insurance.

The move to give them the temporary coverage capped a two-month-old online drive started by a member of a U.S. Forest Service elite "hot-shot" crew, based in South Dakota, that had drawn more than 125,000 signatures.

Obama traveled to Colorado last month where he toured damage caused by that state's most destructive wildfire on record. It reduced more than 346 homes to ash, and at one point, forced the evacuation of more than 30,000 people in and around Colorado Springs. (Reporting by Samson Reiny; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Paul Simao)

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