Lawsuit accuses CAL FIRE of keeping pilots’ grieving families ignorant of death benefits

Families of firefighting pilots killed in the line of duty in California have filed a lawsuit charging that officials in the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) intentionally misinformed them of their entitlement to death benefits.

According to the Sacramento Bee,

They “intentionally misrepresented to the survivors that the only available death benefit they might apply for was those available from” the federal government, the claim states. “Cal Fire executives made these representations knowing them to be false, and at the time they were well aware of the existence of benefits required to be paid under (state law).”

The lawsuit lists 14 pilots that were killed while fighting fires in California. Two of those were employees of DynCorp which has a contract to provide pilots and maintenance for the state’s S-2 air tankers. The other 12 worked for air tanker companies under contract to the U.S. Forest Service.

If a federal firefighter is killed in the line of duty, their survivors receive over $300,000 from the federal government under the Public Safety Officers’ Benefit (PSOB) program. The amount varies from year to year. However the PSOB denies benefits to firefighters that are not regular employees; contract or AD employees are not eligible.

The seven AD crew members that died in the 2008 helicopter crash in northern California were not eligible. The four AD firefighters that were killed in the crash of their van on the way to a fire in Colorado in 2002 were not eligible. Contract air tanker pilots are not eligible.

Families of deceased ground and aerial firefighters have fought for these benefits for years, unsuccessfully.

The lawsuit claims that CAL FIRE encouraged the pilots’ survivors to apply for the PSOB program without telling them that the California Public Resources Code requires that the state provide to them an amount equal to the PSOB benefit plus funds equal to the annual salary of a mid-career CAL FIRE firefighter.

Another interesting section of that law states that the provisions…

…shall be applicable irrespective of whether the department contracts directly with the pilot or contracts with a third party that employs or contracts with pilots.

The attorney for the lawsuit, Paul Goyette, is hanging his hat on that provision, saying it applies even to pilots working for a company that has a contract with the USFS if the fatality occurred in California. The state has a written agreement with the USFS to share firefighting resources, including aircraft.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Sacramento Bee:

…The complaint contends that [CAL FIRE Director Ken] Pimlott and his No. 2, Janet Barentson, knew that state law requires Cal Fire pay death benefits when a contracted fire pilot is killed in the line of duty. At some point, Assistant Chief Mike Ramirez, an administrator at the department’s Ione Academy who also worked with deceased firefighters’ families, discovered the law and brought it up with both superiors, the lawsuit says.

“Defendants Pimlott and Barentson ordered Assistant Chief Ramirez not to disclose the existence of (the law) to any (of the families),” the court filing states, and threatened that “his career would be placed in jeopardy” if he disobeyed. Meanwhile, they ordered Ramirez to continue pressing federal officials to pay benefits, even though it was clear such efforts were “futile,” the lawsuit states.

Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton responded with a two-sentence email to The Sacramento Bee late Friday: “No. This allegation is not true.”

Mr. Ramirez was one of the CAL FIRE employees working at their Ione fire academy that was fired after an instructor there, Battalion Chief Orville Fleming, arrested after a 16-day manhunt, was charged with and later convicted of the murder of his mistress. That investigation uncovered allegations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate alcohol use at the Ione facility. Eventually 16 CAL FIRE employees either resigned, were fired, or were disciplined. All of the disciplined employees were replaced at the academy.

The graphic below is from the Sacramento Bee.

Deceased California air tanker pilots

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dick and Kirk.