Local, federal government hoses victims, widows of fiery inferno

Two incidents came to light this week that prove no matter how much nature can devastate, government can always make things much worse.

I wrote a while back about a wildfire in Arizona that took the life of a friend of mine, as well as a friend of my sweetheart’s. Most of us would like to think that, now that the Yarnell Fire has been snuffed out, the tragedy should have ended.

Oh, if only that were true. Unfortunately, bureaucracy has reared its ugly head and made victims of Arizona residents all over again.

Let’s start with the widow of Andrew Ashcraft, Todd’s friend who was one of 19 firefighters who perished in the Yarnell Fire. Her husband worked full-time and year-round for the city of Prescott, but because the city leaders considered Andrew, at least on paper, to be a “seasonal” employee, the city has denied Juliann Ashcraft’s request for death benefits.

What kind of twisted game is the city playing with its employees? If someone works full-time hours and does so for all 12 months of the year, save for vacations naturally, then in what parallel universe is that considered seasonal?

Apparently, this is the case for 13 of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the wildfire combat team that Andrew belonged to. That means a lot of other widows, many with children who will grow up without fathers, are getting as sharp a punch in the gut as they did the day they received the official word that their husbands would not be coming home.

Read the following comment from Prescott’s public affairs manager, Pete Wertheim, in The Daily Courier, and you’ll see what I mean:

“It’s hard as a city for us to be accused of maliciously or intentionally doing something to withdraw or deny a benefit under the worst circumstance. It would be the lowest human being on the planet who would look at a situation like this and take up some sort of a punitive approach that is being suggested of the city. We take a great offense to it.”

Oh. Really? It’s not punitive to work someone full-time the whole year but label him in his work file like he was a summer intern? I take offense to that logic, and there are quite a few others who think so.

Here’s a statement in a story in The Arizona Republic from David Turbyfill, the father of Travis Turbyfill, another of the Hotshots who perished:

“I think in this case, morally, whether they have legal standing to deny claims or not, I think morally they just should. This is such a huge tragedy. … And so, I think that they have probably a bigger obligation than they might otherwise have.”

Thankfully, the widows and orphans are getting more than $300,000 in a lump sum from the federal government. Also, one of Prescott’s representatives in the Arizona Legislature is working on a bill that would provide additional state benefits to the families.

That’s what the city should be doing. Instead of telling Juliann Ashcraft “Tough luck,” the city should be stepping up and showing it really cares about the people instead of viewing itself as a gigantic cash vampire that likes to suck its citizens dry and then leave them to rot.

However, leaders with the city of Prescott are not the only villains in this tragedy worthy of William Shakespeare. Later last week, the federal government took its opportunity to victimize the people of Yarnell by denying the state’s request for funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Here’s an excerpt from the letter FEMA sent to the state:

“…it has been determined that the damage on uninsured private residences from this event was not of such severity and magnitude as to be beyond the capabilities of the state, affected local governments and volunteer agencies. Therefore, I must inform you that your request for a major disaster declaration is denied.”

So what is it that keeps Yarnell from being a major disaster area? Was the body count not high enough? Was it because Yarnell was a small town, and by that logic, disaster funds should only apply if the fire wipes out Phoenix or Tucson?

It puts me ill at ease because I live in a rural area in Wisconsin, and I’m thinking of the small villages nearby that could be wiped out as easily as Yarnell. Today, I went through the village of Gresham, which has less than 600 people. There are about 1,000 people in Wittenberg, which has those murals I’ve gushed about before.

It sickens me that President Barack Obama is so eager to create universal health care, but an agency that handles emergencies and tragedies cherry picks what awful things deserve additional aid.

Here’s a statement from Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer on FEMA’s decision:

“The state of Arizona continues to mourn this tragedy, which took the lives of 19 of our bravest first responders. While no amount of federal assistance could ever ease the pain of such an extraordinary loss, it would have provided significant financial relief to Yarnell and Peeples Valley. Local residents are under enough emotional stress as they work to pick up the pieces and put their communities back together. Wondering how or if they will recover their losses should be the last of their worries.”

Indeed. Sadly, we seem to live in a world today where we have to hope and pray that private citizens will find it in their hearts to give to those in need, because public officials would rather take those sad people and grind their faces even further in the dirt. It’s disgusting, and it epitomizes what is wrong with government today.

I think President Ronald Reagan had it right when he said that the most terrifying words in the English language were “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

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