The pregnant widow of one of the 19 firefighters killed in a June 30 wildfire near Prescott called Thursday for a special session of the Legislature to address benefits issues for firefighters’ families.
Roxanne Warneke, widow of firefighter Billy Warneke of the Tucson area, said her husband was one of 13 seasonal employees on the stricken Granite Mountain Hotshots unit. Their families are slated to receive less in financial benefits than the six permanent members of the team.
At a news conference, Warneke shared a letter she sent to Gov. Jan Brewer. It said, in part, “My husband and his fellow hotshots each toed the line equally. Each man equally made the same ultimate sacrifice, and each family merits equal benefits in the aftermath of that sacrifice.”
Warneke’s letter asked Brewer to support legislation “to provide fair and equal posthumous benefits for each of the Granite Mountain Hotshot families. And I hope you will go the extra mile by calling the Arizona Legislature into a special session to address this issue.”
The legislation is being drafted by House Speaker Andy Tobin.
City officials in Prescott, where the hotshots were based, had another view.
Extending full survivors’ benefits to the families of the 13 seasonal firefighters killed in the line of duty not only would be illegal but it’s a cost Prescott cannot afford, city officials said in an Associated Press news story.
The city released estimates showing the price tag would top $50 million over 60 years and lead to cuts in services vital to the public. In the event the city were to pay out the benefits in one lump sum, the cost would be $24 million, or three times the budget of the entire Prescott Fire Department, which employed the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
Warneke said her husband, 25 at the time of his death, went to work with the hotshots in April of this year.
“Billy was thrilled to work alongside the best of the best – and he was determined to do whatever he could to be among the best of that supremely talented crew,” she said.
That dedication, she said, isn’t reflected in the benefits she and the families of the other seasonal firefighters are slated to receive.
“My family and 12 other families will not receive the same pension benefits or the same health insurance benefits as the survivors of the city’s permanent employees. The difference is substantial, hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of a lifetime.”
Warneke said the shortfall will affect not only her but also the couple’s first child, a daughter due to be born in December. She said she plans to name the daughter after her husband.
“What I’m suggesting for the state to do,” she said, “is to give all 19 of them the same benefits.”