Second, most seasonal firefighters only have reliable access to an affordable health care option while employed during the summer months. Others don’t have access to any real health care coverage option. This means many firefighters had to go without coverage through the winter months this year while COVID was moving its way across the U.S. Without a significant policy change, these same firefighters either pay a huge premium to extend their coverage through this coming off-season or face the same risk of contracting COVID without health care coverage going into a possible “second wave.”
How did your experience as a wildland firefighter inform your understanding of this issue?
As far as I know, this has been an issue in the wildland fire community as long as modern health care markets have existed. Before 2012, there wasn’t any employer-sponsored health care option for federally employed seasonal wildland firefighters at all. When COVID cases started increasing significantly, I began checking in with my friends who still fight fire. No one had insurance during the off-season. I also started talking more to my brother, Luke, about this issue. He is also a former wildland firefighter working as an ICU nurse in a COVID unit treating patients right now. He insisted that firefighters would be disproportionately impacted based on the symptoms he was noticing in his patients at the hospital and the risks he knows firefighters absorb year after year.
What assurances should the federal government make to these firefighters?
Federal lawmakers should immediately pass the “COVID-19 as a Presumptive Disease in Wildland Firefighters Act
.” The bill would ensure coverage through workers’ compensation for wildland firefighters by assuming those who test positive for COVID this summer did so while working on the fire line. This theoretically eliminates any question of liability.
State and federal governments should also extend subsidized health care coverage through this off-season so firefighters don’t lose their insurance or have to pay through the nose for coverage this winter.
Actually, there’s some good news to share since the Los Angeles Times
article ran. California recently announced it would extend its COVID-19 Special Open Enrollment through July 31. The program is working to enroll residents who have lost coverage due to COVID-19. This year’s fire season is expected to last well past July, however, so extensions are needed for California’s seasonal firefighters to apply.
Why did you choose to pursue a master of forestry degree at Yale?
That’s easy: I love trees! I am also deeply passionate about understanding the disproportionate impact of environmental degradation on certain communities. My mom is an immigrant from Mosul, Iraq. Many in my family, some who will read this interview, are refugees from war. If studying forest ecology helps me better understand ways to minimize catastrophic fire and other environmental harms, maybe I can help prevent others from being displaced.
RELATED: Don’t Just Cheer Wildland Firefighters as Heroes. Give Them Affordable Healthcare [Los Angeles Times op-ed]