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A wildland firefighter takes a break amid thick smoke near the site of a burn operation on the south end of the Lolo Peak fire on Aug. 28.

An open letter to the Montana Legislature:

Representatives and senators:

Senate Bill 260 was signed into law on April 3, establishing the Trenton Johnson Memorial Highway, for the sake of honoring the risks wildland firefighters accept in order to save the lives and property of others, and especially those who pay the ultimate price for their service, like Johnson did at only 19 years of age. Senate Bill 260 passed with a vote of 47-3 in the Senate, and 90-9 in the House. I can’t imagine the reasoning behind the “nay” votes, but that is far from what bothers me the most.

The Montana Legislature has agreed they care enough about wildland firefighters to have highway signs printed and installed. The gesture is well-intended, but meaningless after their following actions on two bills: Senate Bill 160, the Firefighter Protection Act; and House Bill 658, the Medicaid Expansion bill.

Senate Bill 160 started as a means of providing assistance to firefighters who are diagnosed with various cancers, which is a significant occupational hazard, but it was practically gutted by stipulations that narrows eligibility down to, well, no firefighter I have ever met. House Bill 658 would have made it possible for many entry to mid-level firefighters to gain medical coverage beyond their hours on the job, if any is provided. Medicaid would have filled the gaps and given desperately needed year-round medical care to those who selflessly give so much.

How can it be ethically right to show care, empathy and respect to wildland firefighters once they die on the job, but refuse to do the same while they still are alive? This kind of blatant disregard of ethics, logic, financial responsibility and the interests of the people of Montana is not limited to the topic of health care for wildland firefighters. In describing the 2019 legislative session so far, “disappointing” would be a compliment.

I am a wildland firefighter, and I risk my life to help people I will never met, with the full understanding that I will always be under compensated for the work I do. A senator or representative also has the job of helping people they have never met, but don’t have to risk life or limb to do so, and are well paid and insured. I urge the men and women of the Montana Legislature to remember Trenton Johnson not passively as the reason for highway signs, but actively as the reason to better help those in need. I urge them to take their job with the same seriousness they expect from their public servants and first responders.

Because, regardless of how comfortable the seat is, being a lawmaker does in fact make or break countless lives, and being a decent human being isn’t a partisan issue. Every member of the Montana Legislature, by the definition of their job, supposedly works selflessly for the benefit of the people of Montana.

Please, do your job.

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Lea Bossler of Missoula is a wildland firefighter. 

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