FLAGSTAFF - The pregnant widow of one of the firefighters killed while fighting a wildfire near Yarnell is asking Gov. Jan Brewer to call a special session of the Legislature to address benefits for the men's families.
Roxanne Warneke said Thursday that she wants legislators to vote sooner than later on a proposal to retroactively provide benefits to the families of the 13 seasonal Granite Mountain Hotshots who died in June. Unlike the six full-time crew members, the families of the seasonal workers don't get health insurance.
Warneke's daughter, whom she has chosen to name "Billie Grace" after her husband, William Warneke, is due in December. By then, she said, she no longer will be on her mother's insurance policy and hasn't yet explored whether she could enroll herself or her daughter in the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.
"If anything were to go wrong during the birth, that money would be coming out of my pocket, so I would have to pay all of those bills, and medical bills can be thousands and thousands of dollars," she said.
House Speaker Andy Tobin has said he'll introduce a bill in the legislative session that starts in January that would cover benefits for the seasonal Hotshots and any emergency responder who dies on state lands in the future. He's also working on securing a memorial at the site near Yarnell where the firefighters died June 30, helping Yarnell itself, and having the state cover the costs of death-related retirement benefits.
Tobin said hearings likely will be held before the end of the summer to work on the legislation.
"We are trying to get there. Of course everybody would like this done as soon as possible," Tobin said Thursday. "We will not pass bad law because of emotion, but the state has a responsibility to all of these families, and I expect that we will find a reasonable and very respectful way to treat the beneficiaries of the fallen."
The governor has received Warneke's letter and "shares in the frustration felt by her and the other families," said Brewer spokesman Andrew Wilder. He pointed to Tobin's plan, saying he should have an opportunity to present his proposal.
"Once he does so, we will need to gather the facts. There are numerous legal, policy and fiscal questions that must be considered," Wilder said. "Because this issue is so important, it's critical that policymakers get it right."
Wilder added that it's Brewer's policy to call a special session when there's a specific proposal she and both chambers support.
Warneke, who is on medical leave from her job in retail, said she has not yet received the one-time death benefit given to families whose loved ones die in the line of duty. A spokesman for Warneke, David Leibowitz, said she is aware of and thankful for a commitment by the 100 Club of Arizona to pay health insurance premiums for the families of the firefighters for at least a year.
"I'm sure she'll work with them on the question of health insurance. She knows about that," he said. "This is all very fresh and very new, and she's just kind of trying to work her way through it."
Warneke said she knew her 25-year-old husband was classified as a seasonal employee and that the city of Prescott cannot legally provide the more lucrative benefits to those workers' families.
In her letter to Brewer, Warneke asked the governor to step in and help fill a need made evident by the loss of the Hotshot crew.
"Each man equally made the same ultimate sacrifice, and each family merits equal benefits in the aftermath of that sacrifice," she wrote.