For nearly a dozen years, top officials at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection knowingly withheld death benefits from the families of 14 contracted firefighter pilots killed in the line of duty, according to a claim that seeks more than $4 million plus interest for the survivors.
Since 2002, the claim filed late Friday alleges, “high level executives of Cal Fire, including the current director of Cal Fire, the current deputy director of Cal Fire (and their predecessors) ... engaged in a pattern of deceit and deception specifically designed to hide the existence of (the benefit) from the survivors and dissuade them from seeking any such death benefit from Cal Fire.”
Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton said in an email Sunday that the department has not yet formally received the claim, but “has been working on benefits” for survivors of Geoffrey Hunt, a contracted pilot killed last October.
The department also has “been reviewing records to ensure that past Cal Fire contracted pilots have also received them,” Upton said.
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If Cal Fire declines to pay the benefits, the claim is a likely precursor to a court battle over the interpretation of a state law. The statute requires Cal Fire to pay a one-time death benefit if a contracted pilot flying a firefighting aircraft “dies while performing the duties specified in the contract.”
Cal Fire and other agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, contract for firefighter pilots through private companies. The survivors say U.S. Forest Service contracts are covered by the law because the pilots perform firefighting duties for the state.
Paul Goyette, the attorney representing the families, said during an interview at his Gold River offices that the department “has never followed the law, not once,” leaving some grieving families to struggle financially after their primary breadwinner perished.
Federal public-employee death benefits exclude contractors, including pilots who fly firefighting aircraft, Goyette said, and the contracted companies carry workers’ compensation insurance only as required by law.
Upton said Cal Fire is “working with federal authorities” to get rid of the exclusion and ensure “federally contracted pilots receive federal benefits.”
In the absence of a federal death benefit, state law requires Cal Fire to make a lump-sum payment to pilots’ survivors “commensurate with the death benefit payable to a mid-career firefighter employed by the department.” Alternatively, it can pay an amount equal to what the federal program would have paid at the time of the pilot’s death had he or she been eligible.
The federal benefit, which is adjusted annually, was $262,100 in 2003 when two pilots named in the claim, John Attardo and Carl Dobeare, died fighting the East Highlands fire in San Bernardino County. The current federal lump-sum benefit is $339,310.
The complaint alleges that even as Cal Fire brass attended services for the fallen and consoled grief-stricken family members, they misled survivors and hid the state’s legal obligation to pay benefits.
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).”
Mike Lopez, president of the firefighters’ union, Cal Fire Local 2881, said Sunday he wants an investigation into the death-benefits issue.
“I intend to make a full request of the administration that this situation be formally investigated,” Lopez said in a telephone interview. “The families deserve no less, and if the department has neglected to provide information or benefits to the families, then we would expect appropriate action.”
Steve VanderGriend, whose 25-year-old son Zachary and two other men died in 2008 when in a Reno air tanker crash during takeoff to battle a Yosemite fire, said he and his wife, Marci, have joined the claim to affirm the value of their son’s sacrifice.
After Zachary’s death and a memorial service attended by Cal Fire officials, VanderGriend said he was encouraged by the department to apply for the federal death benefit and has spent six years on fruitless appeals for the money. VanderGriend said former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger dispatched a personal letter to the couple after the death telling them he’d help “with whatever we’d need.”
The complaint and looming litigation “isn’t about the money, not even close,” VanderGriend said during a Skype interview from his Reedley home near Fresno. “It’s about doing the right thing,” he said.
Goyette, the attorney, said talks with Cal Fire to settle the matter have broken down.
“I’ve gotten bureaucratic double talk,” he said, “which I’ve translated as, ‘Go away.’”
The department has 45 days to respond to the claim or the families can take the matter to court.
The dispute adds to a list of public-relations headaches for Cal Fire in the middle of an epic fire season.
A former department manager, Orville “Moe” Fleming, was recently sentenced to 16 years to life in prison for stabbing his girlfriend to death last year. Meanwhile, one employee is publicly challenging his termination and others are fighting demotions handed down after events connected to the murder uncovered allegations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate alcohol use at the Ione academy, where Fleming had worked.
Pilots named in claim
Survivors of 14 firefighter pilots killed in California have filed a claim with the state alleging they have been cheated out of death benefits.
Date of death
Location of fire
San Bernardino County
Minden Air Corp.
San Bernardino County
Minden Air Corp.
Heavy Lift Helicopters
Heavy Lift Helicopters
Yosemite National Park
Source: Attorney Paul Goyette, Bee research