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Arizona Firefighter's Widow May Fight City Over Benefits

The widow of a man who died fighting a wildfire this summer as part of a "hotshots" team based in Prescott, Ariz., says her attempts to be paid her late husband's lifetime benefits have been denied. The city's explanation is that Andrew Ashcraft, 29, was a seasonal employee, Juliann Ashcraft said Wednesday.

"Everyone says every day will get better and in fact every day gets harder," Juliann Ashcraft said today, reports local KPHO TV. "I have four small children that now I've got to find a way to provide for them because my husband giving the ultimate sacrifice, in the city's eyes, wasn't enough to seal the deal that we'll be given health benefits, that we'll be given his salary moving forward,"

Ashcraft was one of 19 members of the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots team who died after the out-of-control Yarnell Hill Fire trapped them on June 30.

Only six of those firefighters were classified as full-time, reports Arizona newspaper The Republic, making their survivors eligible for all benefits. The paper explains how the city views the surviving families' benefits:

"All families are to receive a one-time payment of $328,613 and various other financial and tuition benefits.

"But the families of firefighters who were not categorized as full time are not eligible for three benefits that will go to survivors of the six full-time members: health insurance, a lump-sum life-insurance payment and monthly lifetime survivor benefits."

The issue, city officials tell The Republic, is that Ashcraft and others did not pay into the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System. But it seems that his status, and perhaps that of others, may be the topic of a court case, and possibly state legislation, in the future.

Juliann Ashcraft insists that her husband was a full-time employee; she has hired a lawyer and is pondering a lawsuit over the issue, KPHO reports. She said Wednesday that she would fight for the families of all 13 firefighters classified as "seasonal" to receive full benefits.

"Paperwork obtained by CBS News shows that Andrew Ashcraft did earn a full-time salary," according to CBS affiliate KPHO TV. "And the local firefighters union told CBS News that of the 13 Hotshots denied full benefits, Ashcraft was the only one to work 40 hours a week year round."

The complicated and emotionally charged issue may be decided before it reaches the level of a lawsuit, if a plan by Arizona House Speaker Andy Tobin gains momentum. Tobin, whose district includes Prescott, is working on a bill to give full-time status to any emergency worker who dies on state land.

"To be putting your life on the line for part-time survivor benefits is not what I consider appropriate when people are defending the citizens of Arizona, particularly on state land," he said, according to Prescott's The Daily Courier.

The newspaper also reports that the Prescott City Council approved an initial measure Tuesday to form a new elite crew to replace the Granite Mountain Hotshots. The fallen firefighters were the subject of a memorial service last month.

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