* Climate change fuels dangers for wildland firefighters
* Hurt, ill federal firefighters say struggle to get cover
* Department of Labor says 86% of claims approved
LOS ANGELES/WASHINGTON, Nov 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - C hris Carneal spent much of his working life fighting fires for the U.S. government, so when he was diagnosed with cancer he turned to a federal workplace compensation program for help to foot the bill.
Although his doctors said his kidney cancer was linked to smoke exposure from work, the program administered by the Department of Labor (DOL) initially refused to cover his care.
Carneal spent the last two years of his life struggling to pay medical bills and wrangling with a system that many firefighters say is failing to properly protect those who undertake one of the country’s most dangerous and vital jobs.
A year before his death, Carneal pleaded via Twitter with then-President Donald Trump to pressure Congress to make it easier for firefighters to access care for chronic illnesses.
“Please help us,” he wrote. “We give our life.”
But it was only after Carneal’s death in November 2020 that the DOL finally accepted his family’s claim for work-related disease cover after concluding that his cancer was a result of his job fighting wildfires and other blazes.
For his wife, Dana, the hard-fought victory was “bittersweet”.
“I was really disappointed they took so long and that he wasn’t able to celebrate ... that win with us,” she said.
As climate change drives more frequent wildfires, firefighters for federal agencies like Carneal, a civilian who worked for the U.S. Army and fought scores of wildland fires, face a growing risk of work-related injury and illness.
But many find their claims for healthcare costs from the workplace compensation program get lost in a years-long bureaucratic process and sometimes are only paid or accepted after it is too late.
From 2017 to 2020, 2,500 work-related injuries or illnesses were reported on average each year by the roughly 10,000-strong U.S. Forest Service wildland firefighting force – the nation’s biggest wildland force, a database provided to the Thomson Reuters Foundation showed.
Federal firefighters are meant to have treatment for work-related health issues paid for by the government, but are often denied that care, more than a dozen current and former firefighters, their families, union officials and independent experts told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Case files, documents and medical records contain further criticism of the way in which the DOL - through its Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) - handles claims from firefighters.
“It’s a broken system,” said Kelly Martin, president of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, a group seeking better workplace protections.
SMOKE EXPOSURE, PANIC ATTACKS
From smoke exposure and exhaustion to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the Forest Service database paints a stark picture of the toll wildland firefighting work takes on the firefighters on the front lines of climate change.
“I worked from 6 a.m. until midnight at 9,000 ft (2,743 meters) elevation in temperatures reaching the mid 90s,” reads one entry by a firefighter who was digging trenches to protect homes.
A survey conducted by Grassroots Wildland Firefighters found two-thirds of wildland firefighters had sought help for an injury or illness from a workplace compensation scheme.
For decades, members of the U.S. Congress have pushed for federal legislation to make it generally accepted that certain diseases are caused by firefighting work - to no avail.
Researchers with the U.S. government have long shown links between some cancers and careers fighting wildland fires, where firefighters often spend weeks in smoke-clogged areas.
The DOL said it accepts, roughly, at least 86% of the approximately 2,900 annual claims it has received from firefighters, on average, over the last 10 years, noting that anyone rejected has ample means to appeal.
In some cases, however, doctors are unable to establish a clear link between workplace exposure and a particular condition, said Christopher J. Godfrey, director of the DOL’s OWCP.
He acknowledged dissatisfaction among some firefighters, but said the compensation program was not “adversarial” and aimed to help people get the benefits to which they are entitled.
“We’re not an insurance company – we don’t get a bonus for denying someone a claim ... (but) we can’t accept a claim because we feel bad for the individual,” Godfrey said by phone.
‘BEGGING FOR HELP’
Wildland firefighting is one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States, especially as global warming drives more frequent and intense forest blazes, experts said.
But those injured, sometimes seriously, often feel poorly supported, officials and advocates said.
“When we’re hurt, we’re treated like we’re disposable, damaged goods,” said Bob Beckley, a union official representing federal employees, including some Forest Service workers.
Although the OWCP has a dedicated office to handle paperwork from the Forest Service, firefighters who have been through the claims process said there is a lack of specialized training about the particular risks they face.
A DOL spokesperson rejected such criticism, saying the OWCP trains all its claims examiners on the links between workplace exposures and different medical conditions.
Godfrey noted, however, that the organization was working with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to establish a new claims handling unit that could deal with more difficult cases, like those involving certain cancers.
A Forest Service spokesperson said compensation and claims specialists are dispatched to major fire scenes to help firefighters file any injury claims, but that they are ultimately decided by the DOL.
The spokesperson declined to comment on individual cases, but said the “physical, psychological, and social safety of employees is a core value (of the agency)”.
Several firefighters’ families said they had only managed to get healthcare costs paid after appealing to elected officials.
“I am begging for help,” Michelle Ochoa wrote in a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, in March 2016.
It had been over two years since her husband Richard “Wally” Ochoa, a 21-year Forest Service veteran, was hit by a falling tree while defending a small Idaho community from a wildfire.
His face and shoulder were ripped open, both legs were broken and he suffered lasting brain trauma.
After Ochoa was released from hospital, the family’s doctors recommended a full course of treatment at a brain injury rehabilitation center, but the OWCP refused to pay, without giving a reason, Ochoa said.
It was only after Wyden’s office intervened that a partial course of rehabilitation was cleared, Ochoa said.
Godfrey, of the OWCP, said some claims are initially rejected before being approved later when more information is submitted.
Since Ochoa’s injury, his wife Michelle and son Alex said efforts to get his care paid for have turned into a full-time job, demanding hundreds of hours of their time.
“You are like trash - they put you out on the curb, like you aren’t worth anything,” Michelle said.
TURNING TO CHARITY
Skeptical about finding support through official channels, some firefighters turn to charity organizations in an emergency.
“My phone rings 24/7 - I’ll get calls when they’re giving mouth-to-mouth on the forest floor,” said Burk Minor, president of the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, which raises funds for firefighters.
In July 2018, Daniel Lyon wrote a note on his GoFundMe page - an online fundraising platform - updating the nearly 100 people who had donated:
“About a month and a half ago, I received my 28th series of operations,” he said. “I want to thank you all.”
It had been three years since the fire engine Lyon was riding in was engulfed in flames as he and his crew battled to protect remote houses in Washington state.
Lyon’s three crewmates burned to death, and he staggered out of his fire engine, his entire body on fire.
His major surgeries were covered by OWCP payments, but he struggled to get auxiliary services paid for, including counseling for PTSD.
“The bills just started piling up. Dealing with workers’ compensation became my full-time job,” he said.
The DOL spokesperson said the department had not heard complaints of “systemic failures” tied to the OWCP during recent outreach with groups representing federal firefighters.
The outreach has given officials an opportunity to hear about “the challenges associated with obtaining necessary medical opinions from physicians”, the spokesperson added.
But despite firefighters’ criticism of how the workplace compensation system addresses claims, Minor said no one individual or agency was to blame for its shortcomings.
"There are no villains here," he said. "There are good-hearted people in these agencies." (Reporting by Avi Asher-Schapiro and David Sherfinski. Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org)