Aaron Alpe, far right, stands with other members of the Tatanka Hotshots in 2005. Alpe, a Steamboat resident, is part of a campaign to secure health insurance benefits for seasonal firefighters.

Courtesy photo

Aaron Alpe, far right, stands with other members of the Tatanka Hotshots in 2005. Alpe, a Steamboat resident, is part of a campaign to secure health insurance benefits for seasonal firefighters.

Steamboat resident pushes for health insurance for firefighters

Aaron Alpe starts an online petition to extend coverage

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Find the online petition at www.change.org.

— Aaron Alpe inhales smoke from May to October. Some years, he doesn’t stop coughing until December.

“The toll firefighting takes on your body is tremendous,” the Steamboat resident said as he recounted the two knee surgeries and the foot surgery he has undergone during his 10-year career as a wildland firefighter. “It’s rough.”

This summer, Alpe isn’t fighting the major fires that already have consumed hundreds of homes in Colorado. As he works to obtain his commercial pilot’s license, the seasonal firefighter has taken up a new fight.

In May, he worked with friend John Lauer to launch an online petition asking the federal government to provide seasonal wildland firefighters with health insurance benefits.

As seasonal firefighters, Alpe and Lauer have fought fire for years without the ability to buy into an insurance plan with the U.S. Forest Service. Their fight to correct what they see as a major problem is starting to gain national attention.

The petition already has gathered more than 117,000 signatures, and the two men have been interviewed by national news outlets including the Washington Post and NBC Nightly News.

Alpe said the goal of the petition is simple.

“I think that if you’re exposed to hazards and doing public service to the federal government for six months out of the year, you should be awarded a basic health care plan,” he said Thursday.

“It’s just one more thing that needs to be brought to the public eye this year as they see our state in such a bad fire situation. Let’s sit and talk about the firefighters for a second. These people need to be covered with health insurance, plain and simple.”

He acknowledged that this year’s grim fire season in Colorado is benefiting their cause.

Aerial photographs late this week captured the eerie view of the more than 340 homes the Waldo Canyon Fire has consumed in Colorado Springs. The High Park Fire near Fort Collins has charred more than 87,000 acres. Viewers around the country have watched awestruck as homes have burned on live television.

This year, firefighters have a big audience.

Drawn to fire

Alpe said his lack of health insurance doesn’t prevent him from signing up to fight fires year after year.

He was drawn to fire from a young age. To fight it is addicting and enjoyable.

“I love watching fire burn, but I hate seeing it burn in the wrong places,” he said. “I really love the job. I love being outdoors and working for a good cause. It’s an addictive job. The adrenaline in some of the fire behavior you see over the years keeps you coming back.”

After he graduated from Hayden High School, Alpe started studying at Colorado Mesa University. But he left college quickly so he could work the full fire season from May to October.

He started his firefighting career on a Type 6 fire engine in Gunnison. From there, he served on an initial attack squad in Steamboat for a year. Then he served on the Tatanka Hotshots in Custer, S.D., for seven years.

For the past two summers he served as a smoke jumper in Redmond, Ore.

“Everything about this job makes it a really good job, except for the things we’re trying to change,” he said, referring to the lack of health insurance.

Alpe has been able to get on a U.S. Forest Service health insurance plan for two years in his career working as a permanent employee. It was in those two years he utilized the benefit to have the surgeries on his knees and foot. But in most of his other years fighting fire, he has paid out of pocket for doctor visits.

If he’s hurt fighting a fire, he would be compensated for medical treatment. But after fire season is done, he said he pays for doctor visits out of his pocket, sometimes for ailments he thinks are a result of his firefighting.

“It has made me sick in the winter,” he said about firefighting. “It’s a fight to get back into shape.”

Loving the job

Routt Zone Fire Management Officer Sam Duerksen said there are about nine seasonal U.S. Forest Service wildland firefighters who are covering national forest land in all of Routt and Jackson counties and parts of Rio Blanco and Grand counties. The Bureau of Land Management also staffs seasonal firefighters.

Duerksen doesn’t think the lack of health insurance for seasonal employees deters the firefighters from signing up.

“Most of them are in it because they love the job,” he said. “It’s not something they’re trying to do to get health insurance. It typically hasn’t been an issue to sign people up.”

Still, he said the lack of insurance is a negative.

“It’s probably the roughest part of seasonal employment,” he said. “When they’re laid off for the wintertime, they don’t have the health insurance to cover them through the year, so they find other jobs.”

Alpe said he makes $14 an hour as a firefighter. But he usually clocks hundreds of hours worth of overtime depending on the severity of the fire season.

He hopes the petition will give him a chance to purchase an affordable health care plan and depend less on overtime, and fire. To learn more, visit www.change.org.

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com

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