June 30, 2013 was a very dark day in Arizona. Nineteen firefighters lost their lives battling the Yarnell Hill Fire in northern Arizona. Sparked by lightning, the Yarnell fire started on June 28, and was only 4 acres on morning of June 29, but had increased 25-fold by the end of the day. Ultimately, the Yarnell Hill Fire would burn over 8,000 acres, but on June 30 the blaze that claimed the lives of 19 fearless men was around 2000 acres.

Fires are something we deal with in Arizona every summer. Arizona is a desert, with lots of dry brush and large stands of parched Ponderosa Pines, Alligator Juniper, Quaking Aspen, Colorado Blue Spruce, and lots of other trees you probably don’t associate with a state that puts a Saguaro on its license plate. The summer is supposed to bring our monsoon season. While rain is a feature, so are high winds and exquisite amounts of lightning strikes. The danger these elements present is apparent, and the conversation about fires and fire safety that follow are not new to Arizonans.

This time, because of the tragic loss of life, a new conversation has started. Several of the firefighters that were killed on June 30 were not full-time employees of the Prescott Fire Department’s Granite Hotshot Crew. Rather, they were seasonal employees. As such, certain death benefits are not provided to the families of the firefighters.

All of the families are receiving a one time payment of a little more than $328,000. There are also a number of funds, charitable groups, and professional associations that provide material and financial assistance to families of fallen firefighters.

Both the widow and mother of one of the seasonal Hotshots are trying to obtain further survivor benefits that will be received by families of firefighters who were classified as full-time employees. Ashcraft was not considered a full-time employee, nor did he contribute to the system that funds the lifetime benefits for survivors.

There have been some reports that the City of Prescott told family members of those firefighters classified as “seasonal” that the would posthumously reclassify the Hotshots as full-time employees. Yet, an official statement released August 5 by the City of Prescott denies that such a promise was made or that it would even be legal or possible to retroactively change the employment status of the Hotshots.

In a tragedy like this where there is generally no one to blame, yet the rawness of emotion desperately demands accountability from someone, a tangible antagonist is usually sought. The City of Prescott is assuming that role, though it seems it may be undeserved.

The city intends to meet its financial obligations to the firefighters’ families, as their employment classification warrants. The question is: does the suddenness of tragedy and grief require an unprecedented change to provide for the financial security of those left in altered lives? Outside of city benefits, there are other methods to obtain financial security for your family should the unthinkable happen. Many members of law enforcement, EMS, and the military would say that it is the responsibility of the service member to make sure he or she has an alternate form of life insurance in place.

This situation puts in sharp relief, a trend that has developed in our culture over the last several years. The trend of thinking that, when disaster strikes, someone ought to do something. We’ve started to think that Someone Ought To Do Something, regardless of the cost or any particular obligation on the part of Someone to actually provide a service they were not engaged to provide. Part of being a free society is that outcomes are not guaranteed. This means risk is an inherent part of freedom. How we want to protect ourselves and our loved ones when risk becomes real is entirely up to us.

The loss of 19 firefighters – fathers, sons, brothers, friends – is a heart-rending tragedy. Unfortunately, tragedies will continue to happen. The 19 firefighters exhibited fearlessness and willingness to put themselves face-to-face with danger and uncertainty. That quality was what defined and built this country. It’s quite a difficult quality to come by these days, where security is highly sought after. But, perhaps we could learn a lesson from the men no longer with us: risk sometimes has to be taken, without the thought of recompense.

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