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Wildland Firefighters Are Relying On GoFundMe To Survive After Getting Injured On The Job

A slow-moving workers’ compensation process, rejected claims, and unpaid bills can send injured firefighters into financial hell: “It’s a nightmare system, to be honest with you.”

Posted on December 13, 2021, at 3:22 p.m. ET

a woman stand alone in a field with mountains behind her and a cloudy sky
Janie Osborne for BuzzFeed News

On Dec. 3, 2021, in Cody, Wyoming, Michelle Koch Hart stands for a portrait where she and her late husband, Tim Hart, used to go on walks together. Tim Hart was a smokejumper who died in June of this year.

It’s been five months since her husband died, but Michelle Hart can’t escape seeing his name, the date of his death, and the list of injuries he sustained when he landed too hard on a rocky New Mexico hillside jumping out of a plane to fight a wildfire for the federal government.

Those painful reminders keep landing in her mailbox, in medical bills and requests for paperwork, as she continues to wait for government agencies to financially cover both the fall that shattered his limbs and damaged his brain and the support she’s needed since his death. There was the $30,000 air ambulance flight to El Paso, $3,000 more for anesthesia, and a $1,030 bill she still doesn’t understand. She and other family members were only able to pay for accommodations to stay by his side during the 10 days he was hospitalized because of the Wildland Firefighter Foundation. Another nonprofit, the West Yellowstone Smokejumpers Welfare Fund, then set up a GoFundMe for him, knowing the costs would only keep mounting in the days and months ahead. The quick cash was vital when he was in the hospital, but the supportive messages from donors also carried her through.

“I would read the comments on that GoFundMe every single day,” Hart told BuzzFeed News. “There were thousands from people I didn’t know who said, ‘This really matters to us,’ and it kept me going.”

a man in a fire helmet and firefighter gear with smoke behind him
Courtesy Michelle Hart

Tim Hart, a firefighter who died earlier this year in New Mexico jumping out of a plane to fight a wildfire

Tim’s fundraiser is one of dozens posted online on behalf of injured, sick, or dead wildland firefighters. They ask for donations to help them repair their blown-out knees, broken pelvises, and shattered spines; to help them recover from seizures and heart attacks; to pay for treatment for cancers that have taken over their bodies after years of inhaling toxic smoke; and to help families whose main provider died in plane crashes and other on-the-job accidents.

As a result of years of being paid meager wages, receiving inadequate benefits, and dealing with a bureaucratic workplace compensation system that dumps them into a black hole and often does not accept their claims, wildland firefighters say they are left to care for themselves and their own through fundraisers and foundations. Without their grassroots support network, 16 people across eight US states told BuzzFeed News, they or their colleagues wouldn’t have made their mortgages, electric bills, or car payments, let alone covered the extra costs that an injury brings. The US government’s treatment of its critical employees, who until recently were classified not as first responders but as “forestry technicians” in spite of regularly saving lives and properties and physically fighting fire under grueling conditions, has been an issue for decades.

“It’s a nightmare system, to be honest with you,” Pete Dutchick, a former US Forest Service Hotshot assistant superintendent from Auburn, California, who advocates on behalf of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, told BuzzFeed News. “Given the current pay scale, there are a lot of things that go unreported because people can't afford to get hurt. I’ve been in that boat myself. For smaller injuries, you work through it. You do your own [physical therapy], it continues to nag, and it becomes a cycle.”

The federal government employs most of the country’s wildland firefighters, largely through the US Forest Service. About 15,500 are full time, with their base pay starting around $26,000 annually; thousands more are brought on as seasonal and contract employees for most of the year. They bank hundreds of hours of overtime and hazard pay to make a living wage. During a typical fire season, crews can easily rack up 1,200 hours of extra pay, but that also means there’s a higher chance something could happen to them — particularly as climate change exposes them to more extreme conditions, including intense heat and wind-whipped infernos that swallow entire towns. If their injury is severe, sidelining them for months, tens of thousands of dollars of overtime and hazard pay vanish as they drop back down to their base pay.

When they get hurt, they need to file a claim with the Department of Labor’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, known as OWCP. The 16 people told BuzzFeed News that this is usually a difficult and frustrating process; it’s resulted in so many problems, they said, that the Wildland Firefighter Foundation hired someone solely to deal with OWCP on injured firefighters’ behalf. Other advocacy groups also said that they immediately swoop in to act as a liaison because so many firefighters have been denied, had their claim kicked back to them for errors, or didn’t get fully covered.

Interviews with two former safety officials as well as emails, reports, and meeting notes obtained by BuzzFeed News spanning from 2012 to 2018 show that OWCP has sometimes taken months to process claims and authorize treatment, forcing firefighters to pay for their medical care out of pocket or through their own insurance. Case managers would not respond to repeated outreach from their claimants. Some doctors refused to treat injured federal employees due to a history of OWCP not paying. Bills were routinely not paid, paid late, or sent to wrong addresses, resulting in them going to collections without firefighters knowing until months or even years later. A Department of Labor spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that, in the past 11 years, it has taken an average of 36 days to process federal firefighters’ claims and 87% were accepted. In some cases, the blunders sunk them into financial hell.

A man in a yellow shirt and a firefighter helmet
Courtesy Kevin Reese

Kevin Reese, a Forest Service deputy fire officer in Cadillac, Michigan. Reese almost filed for bankruptcy after OWCP declined for years to pay more than $200,000 in medical bills.

That’s what happened to Kevin Reese, a Forest Service deputy fire staff officer in Cadillac, Michigan. He almost had to file for bankruptcy after OWCP declined for years to pay more than $200,000 in medical bills. A tree fell on him in 2013, essentially “crunching” his entire back and damaging his nerves and memory. For the next two years, creditors called him eight times a day, he said, as well as harassing his parents with voicemails and letters. He was so underwater that his wife started cleaning houses and his friends would offer to fill up his gas tank. When he asked for help, he said, the Forest Service’s HR department told him to set up a payment plan, and the Department of Labor ignored him. Finally, after a Forest Service safety manager intervened on his behalf, he told BuzzFeed News, “[The agency] realized this had gone on long enough, that this was unacceptable, and paid all of my bills.” But the damage lasted a long time; he’s only just rebuilt his credit.

“There is no accountability. It almost seems like [OWCP is] encouraged to deny folks, chase them off, run them in circles until they give up. I know an awful lot of dudes who have done that. It’s shameful,” Reese said.

And seeing that what he had experienced is part of a pattern makes it harder for him to do a key part of his job: recruiting people to work for the Forest Service, where he believes “they won’t get taken care of.”

“You look them in the eyes, you put folks in these positions, and at the end of the day, bad shit happens. And knowing that the support system is not there when they fall and crack,” he said, taking a beat, “that becomes a harder pill to swallow after a while.”

In response to a series of detailed questions, the Department of Labor acknowledged that its workers’ compensation program has issues. The number of claims examiners employed there have steadily declined over the last few years due to budget constraints and “specific funding increases for new work such as managing the opioid epidemic and rooting out pharmaceutical fraud,” a spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. About 400 people are currently responsible for handling 200,000 active claims every year, the agency said.

“That becomes a harder pill to swallow after a while.”

From 2010 to 2020, the Department of Labor received an annual average of 2,600 claims from all federal firefighters. Almost all of those, 93%, were classified as traumatic injuries. The spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the agency is in the process of developing new procedures and modifying existing policies. For example, a “Special Claims Unit,” which usually handles nontraditional requests, will now adjudicate “all new incoming firefighter claims.”

The Forest Service, which did not respond to questions from BuzzFeed News, has also known for years of the pervasive problems when its injured workers seek help via the federal workers’ compensation system, but struggled to enact reforms, which were repeatedly recommended by safety managers, according to a trove of documents and emails obtained by BuzzFeed News. One employee from the Pacific Northwest wrote to a safety manager as part of a 2014 audit of the agency’s handling of workers’ comp: “I work for an agency that says in black and white they will take care of me if I get hurt or a disease on the job! I am now scared for my life and this is what I get? Still trying to get help by typing all this….Still no guarantee…still waiting…..”

The burden of surviving a major injury and trying to get by can take a devastating toll. Reese — whose injury drained his daughters' college funds and saddled his family with so much debt that they could not afford their house — said he was contemplating suicide.

He recalled thinking that if he were dead, at least his family could cash out his life insurance policy.

“That’s pretty gnarly,” he sighed, looking back at those moments. “But it’s what happens when you believe you have run out of options, when you are completely fucking drowning.”

A man stands to the far right as a forest floor is ablaze in front of him
Courtesy of Kevin Reese

Reese fights a fire near Miles City, Montana, in 2017

BuzzFeed News previously reported that the wildland firefighting community has a higher rate of suicides than their city counterparts. Burk Minor, who runs the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, a nonprofit emergency fund for struggling firefighters, told BuzzFeed News that a number of firefighters who were injured on the job and experienced financial hardships went on to die by suicide. His organization has helped several families in this situation this year.

“There’s a recipe,” he explained. “When a firefighter gets injured, his checks stop coming, the car in his driveway gets repossessed, his family goes on food stamps. Firefighters are proud. And when they feel like they’ve let their family down, there’s your suicide.”

And as fires are getting hotter and more frequent, wildland firefighters and experts say they’re seeing more injuries, illnesses, and deaths. But it’s hard to know the exact number; the US government does not have one comprehensive database of how many people who respond to fires get sick or injured every year.

In a recent investigation into the matter, the Thomson Reuters Foundation reported that US Forest Service firefighters alone logged an annual average of 2,500 work-related injuries or illnesses over the last four years. That doesn’t include the thousands of firefighters working for other federal agencies, and the private contractors, who during peak fire season make up a third or almost half of the force, are essentially invisible. Every year for more than a decade, the US Forest Service has been paying about $28 million to $30 million in OWCP claims for its 36,000 employees, according to documents obtained by BuzzFeed News. However, experts say, the real number is much higher because many people do not file claims and instead deal with injuries on their own.

“Injuries happen all the time because it’s risky, high-exposure work, but it’s hard to get a read on what that might look like injuries-wise because there is no official database,” Kelly Woods, the director of Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, which attempts to track significant injuries and fatalities, told BuzzFeed News. “There’s also no mandatory reporting if people get sick, so we don’t keep track of illnesses like smoke exposure or cancers. We are still at the mercy of who wants to talk about what happened to them.”

What’s clear is that fighting wildfires is dangerous. Last year, 15 wildland firefighters died in the field, six more than in 2019, from helicopter crashes, getting trapped and overrun by fire, and other medical emergencies, like a heart attack. Their injuries also varied from sprains and poison oak to catastrophic burns and breaks. Large trees fall onto their vehicles with some regularity. Boulders hit their skulls. Flames envelop their trucks. Chainsaws and lightning can suddenly strike their limbs. Smokejumpers, those who plummet into dangerous, often remote locations to try to control a fire before it rages, often do the most damage to their bodies.

Michelle Hart’s husband, Tim Hart, was one of them. Tall and quiet, with a grizzled blonde beard, the 36-year-old was known not only for his homemade rye whiskey and daily uniform of worn baseball caps, Levi’s, and vintage pearl-snap shirts, but for his leadership. He’d been fighting fires for so long — nearly half his life — and did it so well that his death was a sucker punch for the entire wildland firefighting community.

Growing up in rural Illinois with a volunteer firefighter dad, Tim found his calling for the outdoors early on. Some of his first jobs were at small state parks and forest preserves, and he made his way onto a fire line before he finished college. He then got his master’s in forestry and began to rise through the ranks, starting on a Forest Service engine and working on various Hotshot crews before finally snagging a coveted spot with the West Yellowstone Smokejumpers.

Being a smokejumper is an elite job, but you’d never know from the conditions and the pay. For three years, Hart lived out of his car, paying $50 a month to park on a farmer’s lot. There were few other options to live near his remote base, and he was trying to save as much of his slim salary of about $35,000 as he could. Later in West Yellowstone, Hart paid $25 a day to live in a dorm that was infested with mice, lacked potable water, and had peeling linoleum floors that firefighters had to down.

Michelle and Tim went on their first date in 2016. As they stayed out talking until 2 a.m., she learned that in spite of the tough conditions, he couldn’t fathom doing anything else. He loved the rush of flying toward a smoke spiral, cutting through soil to catch and control a blaze before it takes over wilderness, hiking for miles through forests largely unseen by other people, and experiencing the indescribable camaraderie of a fire crew. But the job ground down his muscles and bones. On one fire in Montana, the brakes of a utility vehicle went out and he somersaulted down a hill, busting his eye socket and injuring his shoulder so badly he couldn’t sleep on it for nearly two years; Michelle said OWCP refused to pay for physical therapy. Other times, he didn’t bother to file injury reports because it didn’t seem worth the hassle, she said.

On May 24, 2021, the Eicks fire sparked in the rugged Animas Mountains along the Continental Divide in New Mexico. It was a warm, dry afternoon, and the winds were acting strangely, shifting back and forth. Tim would usually text Michelle before he was set to jump, something he’d done hundreds of times. At 3:49 p.m., he let her know. Busy at work, she didn’t see it until hours later. “Did you jump?” she asked. “Hope all went well.” Her messages never went through.

Around 6:30 p.m., she got a call from Tim’s base manager. He told her there had been an accident, and that her husband was being flown to El Paso. She put a $2,000 one-way flight on her credit card, which got her as far as Denver, where she was stranded. That’s when the Wildland Firefighter Foundation stepped in, covering the rest of her transportation costs, including lodging and food. The nonprofit also flew out Tim's family.

The next two weeks in that El Paso hospital room were a haze of blinking vitals, dozens of doctors, breakdowns, and paperwork. While deciding whether to take her husband off life support, she was also scrambling to notarize and fill out forms so she could jump-start the long, complicated process to get financial help.

To immediately fill in the gaps, the Wildland Firefighter Foundation did what has become routine: start a GoFundMe. More than 1,200 people donated, most of them fellow firefighters. At 6:49 p.m. on June 2, Tim died. Michelle was lying next to him, their wedding song — a bright bluegrass ballad called “Lovin’ You” by Railroad Earth — playing on repeat from her cellphone. “I’ll be lovin’ you till I’m gone,” the singer crooned.

The next day, she had to figure out how to get his body home.

A bookcase holds a pamphlet for tim hart, his parachute, and an american flag
Janie Osborne For Buzzfeed News

Tim Hart’s personal belongings are displayed in his home in Cody, Wyoming.

Today, she’s still battling with federal agencies, trying to prove the facts around her husband’s death to recoup money. It’s been a maze of talking to case managers who send her to different departments, calling 1-800 numbers that lead nowhere, digging up records, and refiling paperwork that apparently never went through. Some of the claims can’t be submitted until the Forest Service investigation into Tim’s death is completed, and she has no idea when that will be. The Forest Service told BuzzFeed News that “reviews of fatalities can be a lengthy process.” This month, she got an unexplained bill from the Department of Agriculture for $1,030, due Dec. 9. She has no idea what it’s for, and when she tried to find out, she said, the agent could not talk to her because she was not Tim.

“It’s very traumatizing, lonely,” she said. “There's no one person in the federal government who is helping me. People don't know who I should talk to. I have to do everything on my own, but I still have so many unanswered questions. The system is broken.”

Left, buckles that read "west yellowstone smokejumpers," right, a hand holding a patch from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Fire and Aviation
Janie Osborne for BuzzFeed News; Alexis Joy Hagestad for BuzzFeed News

Left: a buckle specific to Hart’s base; right: Jackson Spooner holds his Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Fire and Aviation patch

The US Forest Service, which oversees the large majority of the country’s wildland firefighters, has known for more than a decade that its employees have struggled to navigate the workers’ compensation filing system, get claims approved, and have their medical needs paid for, according to the documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News. They give insight into how many top officials, including the Forest Service’s current director, were not only aware of these widespread problems, but had been discussing their frustrations about the process internally for years.

“Leadership in the Forest Service failed to do a damn thing to address our issues with OWCP despite us repeatedly asking and offering solutions,” Buddy Byrd, a former safety and occupational health manager for the Forest Service’s Region 6, which spans Oregon and Washington, told BuzzFeed News. “OWCP is a piece of a bigger systemic failure on behalf of the US Forest Service.”

In 2012, a team of senior leaders from Region 6, the second largest in the US after California, held a conference call with top officials from the service’s budget, finance, and HR center to discuss “concerns related to OWCP oversight” after it was discovered that employees’ claims were falling through the cracks, according to a briefing paper.

The HR officials, including the workers’ compensation program manager for the entire Forest Service, said they were aware of the difficulties and were “working to make improvements,'' according to the report. But in April 2014, at a meeting for the region’s safety officials, issues with OWCP came up yet again. The concerns prompted an extensive audit of the Pacific Northwest region. Those findings would continue to be shared with leaders across the Forest Service for years to come, emails and documents show.

“OWCP is a piece of a bigger systemic failure on behalf of the US Forest Service.”

The probe found that OWCP was taking months to process the Forest Service employees’ claims, and that bills were “not being paid in a timely manner, or are being denied altogether, compelling some employees to not report work-related injuries or illnesses and seeking medical attention through their own medical insurance and their own physicians.” Doctors would refuse to work with patients or make them front the cash for copays or other costs, the report said, “since OWCP doesn’t always pay.”

It also found that case managers were not responding to employees’ calls, as well as instances when the Forest Service or the Department of Labor had closed cases “when treatment was still on-going and required.” Temporary or seasonal employees with little experience accounted for 50% of the agency’s claims.

In its response to BuzzFeed News, an OWCP spokesperson said it was aware that injured firefighters have struggled to find doctors. To address that, the spokesperson said that the office “is actively seeking to procure a medical provider network (MPN) to assure a sufficient number of physicians who are willing and available to treat injured workers.”

The issues were not just specific to the Pacific Northwest. In December 2014, Forest Service safety managers from each region gathered at a strategy meeting and concluded“the concerns within Region 6 were pervasive amongst other regions as well,” a summary report stated.

Steve Holdsambeck, who retired in September 2020 from the Forest Service, where he worked as the branch chief for risk management, told BuzzFeed News that leadership had focused on preventing injuries and deaths, and OWCP issues kept “getting pushed down the agenda” due to shrinking budgets, turnover, and chaos within the agency. Though most firefighters had good experiences with OWCP, Holdsambeck said that while he was one of the top safety officials at the national level, managers had flagged egregious cases for years. Often, managers would advocate for their employees on their own time, going to homes and hospital rooms to make sure paperwork was properly filled out.

“It is embarrassing,” he said. “One of the biggest problems was this belief that the Forest Service could not be an advocate for its employees, that we could not go to bat for them. That was frustrating.”

A locker room filled with firefighter equipment and a sign that reads "stupid hurts"
Alexis Joy Hagestad

Inside of the Missoula Smokejumper Base, the "ready room" is where smokejumpers get ready before they leave for the aircraft. Photograph taken in Missoula, Montana.

For about four years, safety managers had repeatedly asked Forest Service leaders to intervene with the Department of Labor and reform how the agency approached workers’ compensation to better support its employees, according to emails and briefings. Those involved in direct correspondence or email chains at the time included the agency’s director of safety, the director of HR, the deputy director of HR, the Forest Service workers’ compensation manager, the deputy regional forester for Region 6, the acting associate deputy chief of business operations (now the assistant director of the national forest system), the deputy chief of the national forest system, and the Forest Service’s director, Randy Moore.

Meanwhile, some firefighters got so desperate that they started reaching out to their elected officials and asking them to intervene. Several outraged lawmakers did, according to letters and replies by the Department of Agriculture obtained by BuzzFeed News. A US Forest Service official involved said there were some “high-level meetings” in 2016 and 2017 because members of Congress kept inquiring about specific cases involving injured constituents.

But despite these meetings, and despite major efforts by leaders to reduce accidents over the years, the Forest Service continues to struggle with OWCP. According to Holdsambeck, the Forest Service started prioritizing injury issues around 2017 and has since made some positive changes. Its “You Will Not Stand Alone” program provides a road map for agencies to work together to provide support after an employee dies or is seriously injured. In fall 2020, right as Holdsambeck was retiring, he said, top Forest Service leaders were supposed to have “a head-to-head meeting” with the Department of Labor to “get to the bottom of the OWCP mess.” In its response to BuzzFeed News, OWCP said that it “provides ongoing training to its agency partners.”

Still, the “bureaucratic mess” that is the Department of Labor is causing headaches, Riva Duncan, executive secretary of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, told BuzzFeed News. Firefighters still have to do a lot of work to prove their injuries are real and not fraudulent, she said, even when there were witnesses who watched them crash, get burned, or fall.

“When a smokejumper gets seriously injured, they shouldn’t have to go through the same hoops to prove that,” Duncan said. “Things can and should be streamlined.”

a man in a smokejumper t-shirt and baseball hat in a landscape
Alexis Joy Hagestad

Jackson Spooner photographed outside of his home in Dillon, Montana.

Waking up with his cheek in the dirt and his head throbbing, Missoula smokejumper Jackson Spooner wasn’t sure where he was. He didn’t remember what day it was or that he’d jumped from a plane to fight a small fire in the wilderness near Pray, Montana. He’d only later piece together how he got to the ground on July 9. It was sunny, and the still air had suddenly turned turbulent. His tricks to slow the increasingly dangerous descent through the sky were unsuccessful. As he was still 80 feet from the ground, he wrapped his parachute around the canopy of a tree to try to avoid getting skewered by the one next to it. Under the impact of his body and gear, part of the treetop snapped, slingshotting him. Lying on the ground 20 feet from the trunk, it felt like someone had poured scalding water over his back muscles. He tried to move, but his left side remained frozen. He couldn’t lift his legs.

A half-hour later, he was airlifted to a hospital in Bozeman, Montana — the beginning of a long and painful, but lucky, recovery.

“Doctors said they didn't know how I was alive,” he said. “They kept telling me that.”

Spooner crashed less than a month after Tim Hart did. He was still in training at the time, and the death of the veteran firefighter hit hard. But when Spooner’s trainers asked where his head was, he told them he was still “100% in.”At 30, he’d already put in 12 hard years of fighting fires with engine crews. Becoming a smokejumper was his dream.

But in spite of the training that had turned flinging his body out of a plane into muscle memory, the firefighter had broken his right heel, tibia, and lower back. The damage had also shattered his pelvis and knocked its left side a few inches higher than the right. Doctors had to drill holes through his hip bones and femur to pull everything back in line. After getting transferred to a facility in Billings that was better equipped to treat his severe injuries, he lay hoisted in a hospital bed for two weeks.

a man holding a model of his broken pelvis in two hands
Alexis Joy Hagestad

Spooner holding a 3D-printed model of his pelvis fracture while parachuting to a fire. The photo was taken outside of his home in Dillon, Montana.

Just like they did with Tim Hart and dozens of others, the wildland firefighting community started a GoFundMe for Spooner, raising $35,000. On top of that, Spooner said, the Wildland Firefighter Foundation immediately sent him $4,500 for expenses, and the nonprofit has contributed about $10,000 to his recovery. He credits that support for keeping him stable during the hardest and lowest months of his life.

“Without the GoFundMe, the Missoula Smokejumpers, and the Wildland Firefighter Foundation…,” he said before pausing, “there’s absolutely no way I would have made it. I would have been out of money, and that’s a really scary place to be. They saved my mental health.”

In Spooner’s case, he didn’t have health insurance, and he had barely any savings. When he applied to be a Missoula smokejumper in 2020, his base hourly wage was $16.73 before hazard or overtime pay. A month after he was injured, OWCP started paying him $735 every two weeks; that barely covered his mortgage, which runs him $1,133 a month. Doing the math, he estimated he’s lost about $20,000 in overtime and hazard pay since his accident; though he has relearned to walk and no longer uses a wheelchair, he has no idea when he can get back to work. For now, the GoFundMe donations are covering his expenses.

He’s also still getting confusing bills. Recently, the hospital sent him an invoice for $2,500, which he thought OWCP should have paid. And for some reason, his fractured back never made it onto his claim, so he’s on the hook to cover care. In October, he tried to get answers from OWCP but never heard back.

An OWCP spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that they cannot comment on specific cases, but the office contracted with a new medical billing company last year and “is aware that there were some challenges with the transition.”

Recently, when Spooner tried to fix his claim, OWCP told him he needed to prove his “new diagnosed condition” regarding his back, emails show. The frustrating thing, he said, is that his back has been broken all along.

“I have no idea what to do or who to talk to,” he said. “I just want to get back to where I was and keep going. I don’t want to be slowed down by this injury.”

A white and orange plane in a hangar
Alexis Joy Hagestad

Inside of the aircraft hanger where planes are stored at the smokejumper base in Missoula, Montana. The plane photographed is used to hold smokejumpers to jump out to fires.

Advocates like the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters have long been pushing for Congress to address the low pay and federal bureaucracy that has left wildland firefighters frustrated and at times barely staying afloat. Finally, this year, they got traction: Rep. Joe Neguse and a small bipartisan group of lawmakers crafted a series of bills that would, if passed, drastically change the lives of wildland firefighters like Spooner.

The most groundbreaking one is named after Tim Hart. It seeks to provide housing allowances, establish a mental health program, and radically change firefighters’ healthcare benefits. Michelle Hart, who gave input on the legislation, said the unveiling of the bill in her husband’s name in September was the most surreal and bittersweet 24 hours of her life.

“These issues were so personal to him. We’d talk about them over dinner so many times,” she said. “He wanted the people he loved to be recognized, everything they all went through every day.”

And then last month, as part of a sweeping infrastructure package, President Joe Biden also signed legislation allotting $600 million to specifically help wildland firefighters with pay raises, title changes, and more staffing. Most importantly, it reclassifies them from forestry technicians to firefighters, which makes them first responders in the eyes of the government. It’s a significant step toward changing how the US approaches its firefighting force, but experts and advocates say it’s just a start.

If passed, the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act would name certain diseases and types of cancers as presumably caused by the conditions faced by wildland firefighters, granting them workers’ compensation coverage without having to demonstrate that years of exposure to toxic smoke or particulates was to blame. Firefighters in many states have some set of “presumptive illness protections” established by law, but since wildland firefighters are primarily employed by the federal government, they’re left with the extremely difficult task of trying to prove how they got sick.

Charlie Jones didn’t even try. The 40-year-old captain of the Tallac Hotshots, based in South Lake Tahoe, California, believed his chances of getting OWCP to approve his claim for his stage 2 colorectal cancer diagnosis were slim to none. He’d gone that route before with an eye injury years back, and it was “a pain in the ass.” He ended up taking care of it on his own and decided to go the same route with this disease.

“There’s no way they would cover me,” Jones said, shrugging. “I have to prove I got cancer through work. How do I do that?”

A man in a firefighter uniform in the wilderness
Courtesy of Charlie Jones

Charlie Jones

OWCP’s director, Chris Godfrey, told BuzzFeed News that the agency is working on simplifying the claims process for diseases like cancer. “After gathering and synthesizing the scientific evidence into an improved policy for firefighter occupational disease claims, OWCP intends to streamline the handling of those firefighter claims where the causal link has proven most difficult to establish,” he said.

Jones’ best current option is to put the treatment costs that his health insurance won’t cover on a credit card. His family also has a GoFundMe going — though Charlie, who donates to every wildland firefighter campaign he sees, didn’t want to set one up for himself.

“We would have somehow managed,” he started before his wife, Holly Jones, cut in: “That’s the mentality of wildland firefighters, ‘Be tough, don’t complain, don’t talk about symptoms.’”

For firefighters, cancer in their 40s and 50s has become a common story, and studies have shown they’re at higher risk for developing certain types. Most everyone knows a superintendent, a squad leader, or a Hotshot who has gotten sick. And across GoFundMe, pages ask donors to help wildland firefighters with testicular cancer or mesothelioma.

Jones went in for an early first colonoscopy in February after hearing so many stories of men like him getting cancer. His doctor found a tumor, and the diagnosis rocked his family. Holly, who previously stayed home with their two kids, one of whom also has serious health problems, started waiting tables to try to make up for some of the $50,000 Charlie has lost by being off the fire line this season. The GoFundMe, the couple said, has been invaluable. Had it not been for that cash, Charlie said, he would’ve had to go back to firefighting, even while getting treatment, to make sure they’d stay afloat.

The lanky, athletic captain, who was raised by National Park ranger parents in California’s Death Valley and has fought fires for 20 years, now has a very different routine. Instead of spending weeks in the wilderness, it’s weeks of draining radiation and painful chemotherapy. He’s also been doing clerical work for his Hotshot crew, grateful to them for keeping him on payroll. But most of the time, he said, he waits. Right now, he’s waiting for an MRI to tell him if the disease has receded or spread and if he’ll have to get surgery, waiting to see when he can again support his family with the job he loves, if his body will ever be able to handle another 1,000-hour fire season, if he’ll ever feel the same again.

“I can feel it inside that I am not the same person,” he said. “I’m not. And I could dwell on it for the rest of my life — what happened to me — but I can’t focus on it.”

He’s also trying not to focus on the fact that his employer, the government, isn’t stepping up to pay for his medical bills after how much of himself he’s poured into fighting fires. But deep down, he’s waiting for that too: “There should be a program to help firefighters who get cancer, have problems with their lungs; that addresses the long-term effects of fighting fire,” he said, sighing. “It should be easy to take care of us.”

Until then, there’s GoFundMe. ●

A yellow shirt photographed on a white wall
Janie Osborne for BuzzFeed News

Hart’s yellow fire shirt, one of the ones he wore on the line every summer when fighting wildfires, photographed at this home. After Tim Hart's death, his wife Michelle Koch Hart kept his firefighting gear.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.