NBC News: smokejumper seriously injured on the job, diagnosed with cancer

Ben Elkind and family
Ben Elkind and family

Ben Elkind was seriously injured during a training parachute jump on May 15. During his ninth year as a smokejumper (with six years before that on a hotshot crew) he sustained a dislocated hip and pelvic fracture during a hard landing. During surgery at the hospital they found six fractures and placed three plates and 10 screws to repair the damage.

While Ben is unable to fight fires for an extended length of time, he will not be able to supplement his base income with the usual 1,000 hours of overtime each year which in the past he has depended on to support his wife and two small children.

And then during a full body CT scan a nodule was discovered on his thyroid — meaning, cancer. Ben told Wildfire Today the cancer was caught early and is very treatable.

We have written about Ben previously, but that was before we were aware of the cancer. And the other reason we’re bringing it up now is that yesterday NBC News published a nearly four-minute video story about Ben and other similar examples of injured wildland firefighters.

For more than the last year Ben has been very involved working to improve the working conditions of federal wildland firefighters, being proactive in educating the public and other firefighters about what they can do to improve the pay, classification, health, well-being, and processing of worker’s compensation claims (see photo below). In 2021 he wrote an article that was published in The Oregonian and Wildfire Today. And now he finds himself as one of the examples of what can happen on the job to a wildland firefighter that can seriously affect them and their family.

NFFE meets with Secretary of Labor
NFFE meets with Secretary of Labor in Washington, DC, March 16, 2022. L to R: Max Alonzo  (NFFE), Bob Beckley (NFFE), Hannah Coolidge (USFS Hotshot), Marty Walsh (Sec. Of Labor), Dane Ostler (USFS – Prevention), Ben Elkind (USFS – Smokejumper), Randy Erwin (NFFE – President), and Jeff Friday (NFFE).

There has been some progress during the last year in establishing a list of presumptive diseases for firefighters.

Pending legislation would create the presumption that firefighters who become disabled by certain serious diseases, contracted them on the job, including heart disease, lung disease, certain cancers, and other infectious diseases. The bipartisan Federal Firefighters Fairness Act, H.R. 2499, passed the House in May and is now in the Senate.

In April the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP), in FECA Bulletin No. 22-07, established a list of cancers and medical conditions for which the firefighter does not have to submit proof that their disease was caused by an on the job injury.

Consider telling your Senators and Representative to pass the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act, H.R.5631. The name of the bill honors smokejumper Tim Hart who died after being injured on a fire in New Mexico in 2021. (More about the bill.) And ask your Senators to pass the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act, H.R. 2499.

You may want to make a donation to the gofundme account set up by the Redmond Smokejumper Welfare Organization to assist Ben and his family.

Serious injury sidelines Redmond Smokejumper

Ben Elkind family
Ben Elkind’s family. Photo via Redmond Smokejumpers Welfare Organization.

This article was first published on Fire Aviation.

A smokejumper was seriously injured Sunday May 15 during a training parachute jump. Ben Elkind sustained a dislocated hip and pelvic fracture during a hard landing. During surgery at the hospital they found six fractures and placed three plates and 10 screws to repair the damage.

Ben has been a Smokejumper for the US Forest Service based in Redmond, OR for nine years and worked in fire as a member of the Zig-Zag Hotshots before jumping. He rookied as a smokejumper in Redding, CA, in 2014 then transferred to Redmond in 2015 to be closer to home and his family.

If his name seems familiar it is because on Wildfire Today we reprinted an opinion article he wrote that was published in The Oregonian, titled, “A USFS firefighter in Oregon can be paid more at McDonald’s.” Ben was also a member of a group that traveled to Washington, D.C. in March where they met with White House officials about pay issues and passing the  Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act (H.R. 5631). They also talked with Marty Walsh, the Secretary of Labor, who oversees the Office of Worker’s Compensation Programs (OWCP), an agency that has been criticized for slow-walking or failing to appropriately process the claims and pay the medical bills of firefighters injured on the job.

In an ironic twist, a GoFundMe page has been set up for Ben’s family by the Redmond Smokejumpers Welfare Organization, an often necessary step taken by many federal firefighters who are injured on the job. Here is an excerpt from their description on GoFundMe:

Ben has a long road to recovery and will be unable to work for a significant length of time and will be missing out on the overtime that so many wildland firefighters depend on to make a living. We are starting this GoFundMe in order to help Ben and his family through this tough time. Please consider donating to help a firefighter and his family while they support each other on the road to recovery.

Opinion: A USFS firefighter in Oregon can be paid more at McDonald’s

A view from under a smokejumper canopy

Boise BLM smokejumpers
Boise BLM smokejumpers. BLM photo by Carrie Bilbao July 28, 2020.

(This article first appeared at The Oregonian)

By Ben Elkind

I would almost do it for free. The feeling of complete focus and calm after jumping out of the airplane is hard to find elsewhere these days. But the chaos from life and the fire below are making me rethink my career, and that’s a big problem for Oregonians.

I’ve been a smokejumper for the US Forest Service for eight years and worked on the Mt. Hood Hotshot Fire Crew before that. I grew up in Oregon and can’t stand to see the wildfires ravaging our public lands and communities, while the smoke threatens our public health.

The Forest Service employs the largest firefighting force in the west, yet the agency refuses to rise to the challenge of climate change and the growing demand that increased fires, short-staffing and low pay presents for our workforce.

Vacancies throughout the west limit our firefighting ability. Fire engines sit idle and unstaffed in many parts of our state, and the number of “Type-II” incident management teams – charged with managing large fires around the northwest – has decreased from ten to seven since 2014. The teams that remain are short-staffed and spread thin. This is the obvious outcome in a profession that I’ve never heard anyone recommend to their children.

As the cost of living and home prices rise in the west, the Forest Service can no longer retain its employees when starting pay is $13.45 an hour. At the Lincoln City McDonald’s, just west of Otis, another community nearly erased from the map by wildfires, a sign in the window advertised starting pay is $15 an hour. My wife joked that I should apply there for more job security. She’s right. A career with McDonald’s is currently more promising than federal wildland firefighting.

I’m an incident commander with advanced qualifications, supervising dozens of resources and fire crews on fires, yet I’ve never earned more than $20 an hour in my 14 years as a professional wildland firefighter. I make decisions that can cost millions of dollars with lives hanging in the balance, yet I am paid more like a teenager working a summer job than a highly experienced professional. Last summer, I trained someone from Seattle Fire who earned more in two weeks than I earned in a 6-month fire season.

The cost of paying living wages to our firefighters pales by comparison with the costs that devastating wildfires have on our state. The costs in Oregon from the 2020 fires alone are in the billions of dollars, and that doesn’t include the mental toll it took on our citizens. My pregnant wife was home with our toddler duct-taping paper towels on a fan to try to filter the smoke, while I was working on the fire that would burn from Warm Springs past Detroit and toward Portland.

I’ve personally seen the experience level drop rapidly on fires over the past decade as people find work that is more predictable and safer, and affords them a better work/life balance. This leads to higher fire costs simply because we aren’t as experienced at fighting fire as we used to be. When training costs are so high, retention is paramount to fiscal responsibility.

Prescribed burns and hazardous fuels reduction are buzzwords politicians and media use, but the reality is that there aren’t people willing to take on that dangerous job anymore at $13.45 an hour. The limiting factor is staffing.

Fire season in 2021 is now underway in the drought-stricken western U.S., yet there have been no policy changes at the firefighting level, or legislatively.

Talking about wildfires, climate change, prescribed burning is great. But our citizens and firefighting workforce demand action. I ask for your help, to demand a better investment of our money, and to preserve what parts of Oregon we have left for future generations.

Smokejumpers. BLM photo.

Ben Elkind is a smokejumper for the U.S. Forest Service based out of Redmond.