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Every year, the federal government hires thousands of wild land firefighters to spend the summer protecting homes, businesses and forests. It's dirty and sometimes dangerous work, and those seasonal jobs didn't come with health insurance until now. President Obama has directed the Forest Service to start offering seasonal firefighters the same health benefits year-round federal employees get. Here's Colorado Public Radio's Eric Whitney.

ERIC WHITNEY, BYLINE: Twenty-seven year old John Lauer is a seasonal firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service based in Custer, South Dakota. He loves the job. It's exciting. He gets to live and work outdoors all summer, and he says protecting people's homes and America's public lands is tremendously gratifying. But he doesn't like seeing his talented and experienced colleagues have to leave the job just because it doesn't come with health insurance.

JOHN LAUER: It's a very difficult thing to walk away from this trade, this line of work, because you simply can't afford it. You know, you can't have a family and do this. If you do, you're kind of rolling the dice and hoping nobody gets sick.

WHITNEY: Lauer has seen two firefighters on his crew roll the dice and lose in recent years. Constance Van Kley is married to one of them. When she got pregnant five years ago, she skipped some of her prenatal care because she didn't want to rack up medical bills, and then she delivered their son seven weeks prematurely.

CONSTANCE VAN KLEY: And he spent two and a half weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit. By the time he got home, we were about $70,000 in debt with hospital bills.

WHITNEY: When another crewmember got hit with huge bills related to his child's birth again this year, Lauer felt like he had to do something.

LAUER: Some folks on our crew and I, we gathered up, and we wrote a petition in a small kitchen in Custer, South Dakota, and figured we'd kind of see what would happen from there. And...

WHITNEY: They posted the petition online and then went out to fight fires. Within a couple of months, 125,000 people had signed it, and it got the attention of Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Denver.

REPRESENTATIVE DIANA DEGETTE: That just didn't seem fair to me.

WHITNEY: DeGette wrote a bill that would give seasonal firefighters the same health insurance benefits full-timers at federal land management agencies receive. DeGette says it's pretty common for seasonal firefighters to put in a whole year's worth of work in a six-month fire season.

DEGETTE: Some of these firefighters have as many as 850 hours of overtime every fire season, and also, they have so many health risks because they're out there on the front lines. So I'm not going to say one deserves health benefits and another doesn't, but I think they make a compelling case.

WHITNEY: Just hours after the bill was introduced, senior White House officials said President Obama was taking action himself. The president ordered federal agencies to start offering seasonal firefighters the same health benefits year-round federal employees get. Firefighter John Lauer says he and his crew are amazed that their petition drive worked and so quickly.

LAUER: There's kind of an aura of disbelief almost, you know, because this has been an issue that's been out there so long, and nothing has ever happened on it. I think a lot of folks just thought this is the way it was going to be forever. It's kind of surreal, I think, for a lot of firefighters and their families. It's changing the game for them.

WHITNEY: More than 10,000 seasonal firefighters are on the job this season. The president has not yet offered an estimate of how much it'll cost to extend health care benefits to them. For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney in Denver.


SIEGEL: That story is part of a partnership of NPR, Colorado Public Radio and Kaiser Health News.

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