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Pregnant widow of Hotshot firefighter calls on Ariz. governor in benefits feud

Facing a future as a single mother, the widow of Iraq War veteran and Arizona Hotshot Billy Warneke wrote a poignant letter to Gov. Brewer, calling for a special session of Arizona's legislature to award the same full-time benefits to all public safety officials who die on state land. KPNX's Brahm Resnik reports.

An expectant mother and widow of a Granite Mountain Hotshot who died in an Arizona wildfire in June has asked Gov. Jan Brewer to intervene on behalf of more than a dozen families that do not qualify for full survivors benefits.

Billy Warneke, 25, was a Marine veteran who had enlisted right out of high school, according to an article in the Arizona Republic. He was among the 19 firefighters who were overtaken by flames while fighting the fire around the town of Yarnell.

Since then, the families of some of the seasonal firefighters have fought to obtain the same health benefits as the six full-time members of the Hotshot crew, benefits town officials have said they cannot provide because the firefighters were seasonal employees.

That’s not acceptable to Roxanne Warneke, who says her husband lost his life protecting the town and its residents. She said in her letter to the governor that she is expecting her first baby in December and is worried about health care coverage.

“Billy was thrilled to work alongside the best of the best – and he was determined to do whatever he could do to be among the best of that supremely talented crew,” Warneke wrote in her letter dated Aug. 14.

“As you surely know by now, only six of the Granite Mountain Hot Shot fire fighters were permanent employees of the City of Prescott,” Warneke wrote in her letter. “Because our husbands were hired as seasonal firefighters, my family and 12 other families will not receive the same pension benefits or the same health insurance benefits as the survivors of the City’s permanent employees. The difference is substantial, hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of a lifetime.”

The city has said it is being unfairly accused of denying benefits to eligible families, and has said it is legally prohibited from reclassifying temporary employees as full-time employees after the firefighters' deaths. That bars officials in the city from giving the widows and their children full benefits even if they want to – but some lawmakers may be working to change that.

All of the families – including those not eligible for full benefits – could see a total of about $433,000 in government benefits and charitable donations. That money would come through private gifts to a fund maintained by the Prescott and Phoenix firefighters unions, as well as $328,612.73 set by law by the U.S. Justice Department's Public Safety Officers' Benefits Programs for first responders killed in the line of duty.

"They all deserve equal treatment because they all made the same ultimate sacrifice," Warneke said at a press conference on Wednesday.

Arizona House Speaker Andy Tobin has said he is working on legislation to resolve the dispute, according to a report in the Republic. Tobin's district includes both the town of Prescott and the area around Yarnell. Men and women who put themselves in harm's way to protect their community should know that their families will be taken care of in the event of their deaths, Tobin said, according to the paper.

The governor has received Warneke’s letter, and “wants to see a solution,” a spokeswoman said on Friday. Brewer is waiting to see the House Speaker’s proposal, she said.

The governor “shares in the frustration felt by her and the other families of the firefighters tragically killed in the Yarnell Hill Fire,” spokeswoman Ann Dockendorff said in an email. “There are numerous legal, policy, and fiscal questions that must be considered. Further, as a threshold matter, it’s Governor Brewer’s policy to call a special session when there is a specific legislative proposal that she and both chambers support.”

“Because this issue is so important, it’s critical that policymakers get it right,” Dockendorff said.

Warneke is the second widow of a Hotshot firefighter to protest the benefits loophole. Juliann Ashcraft, who lost her 29-year-old husband Andrew fighting the fire, has hired an attorney and said in early August that she was considering filing a lawsuit against the city of Prescott.

“They have been unprofessional and rude, almost heartless in a sense at times,” Ashcraft told NBC News affiliate KPNX.

Reuters contributed to this report.