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By: NEWS10 ABC Sacramento
12:42 a.m. PDT August 11, 2015
Video at the link: https://www.news10.net/story/news/local/california/2015/08/11/families-sue-cal-fire–death-benefits/31448457/
Pilots take to the air and provide aerial support for raging wildfires, putting their lives on the line every time they go up — many of those pilots are contracted by Cal Fire. Fourteen contract pilots lost their lives while working for Cal Fire, and their families say their loved ones are not getting their due.
“He would say, ‘I’m going up, we’re going to make a drop. Will call you when I’m back,'” Marci VanderGriend said.
VanderGriend did not get the call she was hoping for on Sept. 1, 2008. Her son Zachary was a contracted pilot for Cal Fire at a rate of $18 an hour. He flew air tankers directly into walls of flames and dropped retardant to keep the families below from losing it all. However, his final flight would come at a tremendous cost to his own family
“Our family lost everything,” she cried.
Her son was one of three aerial firefighters that died in an air tanker crash while battling a wildfire in Yosemite. As contract pilots, their families received no death benefits.
“They do everything they are told to do and if something happens to them, they are just left,” VanderGriend explained. “It’s like they don’t care.”
VanderGriend and the families of the 13 other fallen contracted pilots are now represented by Paul Goyette. He said a state law passed in 2002 extended death benefits to the families of contracted pilots. Goyette filed a claim against Cal Fire on the behalf of the 14 families to get Cal Fire to pay up.
“Not only did Cal Fire executives know about the existence of this benefit, they have known about it, but they took steps to conceal the benefit to ensure the surviving family members didn’t discover it,” Goyette claimed. “It devalues the ultimate sacrifice he made which is disgusting.”
VanderGriend said she had no idea about the law or benefits due to her family.
“No one told us, not Cal Fire who came to the memorial,” VanderGriend said. “Why didn’t they tell us.”
Goyette said each family is due anywhere from $260,000 to $330,000. However, the VanderGriends said it isn’t about the money.
“Honestly, it is about justice,” Zachary’s sister Andriana VanderGriand said. “Zack gave his life selflessly saving homes of people he didn’t know.”
Cal Fire said in a statement:
“While we have not formally received the complaint, we have been working on benefits for Pilot Craig Hunt since the time of his crash and we have been reviewing records to ensure that past Cal Fire contracted pilots have also received these benefits. We are also advocating for the payment of federal benefits to federally contracted pilots.”

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