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Court Rules Against Families Of Wildland Firefighters Killed In 2003

Courtesy of the Ransdell family.
Mark Ransdell was a 23-year-old contract firefighter who died in a fiery van crash in 2003.

These days, you can often find contract firefighters on the front lines. They’re usually indistinguishable from government firefighters.

But a recent court ruling has made it clear: if they’re killed in the line of duty, their families are not eligible for federal survivor benefits.

Nearly 11 years ago, a van full of wildland firefighters from Oregon died after working the fire lines in Idaho.

“On the way back home, they had a collision with a semi-truck. All eight of them died in a fiery crash," said Dale Ransdell, who lost his 23-year old son, Mark, that day. Unbelievably, Mark Ransdell was his second son to die in an automobile accident.

“So, we’ve lost two kids. All I can tell you is that it’s always on your mind, that it never goes away," he said.

The Ransdells and other families of the killed firefighters applied for survivor benefits designed for federal public safety officers. They were denied. They appealed, and were denied again.

Now, a U.S. Court of Appeals has affirmed that contracted firefighters do not qualify as public safety officers. Ransdell says he’s prepared to try to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I’m not in for the money; right now, what I’m in it for is setting precedent, because every year this is happening,' he said.

Since 2003, nearly 200 wildland firefighters have died on the ground and in the air nationwide, records show. It’s unclear how many of those were contractors. Virtually all of the air crews are contracted, as are about 15 percent of federal wildland fire ground crews.


Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.