Congress voted early Saturday to ensure that nearly $1 million donated to benefit the families of five firefighters killed in October's Esperanza fire is protected from federal taxes.
The legislation was approved unanimously in the House and Senate as one of the last actions of the 109th Congress. The provision provides a one-time exemption to tax laws that prevent charitable organizations from directing assistance to specific individuals.
The Central County United Way in Hemet has raised $1 million in contributions to assist families of the five U.S. Forest Service firefighters, who were overwhelmed when a sudden wind shift blew the flames directly over them as they battled to protect a home.
A bipartisan group of California lawmakers pushed the legislation after Internal Revenue Service officials warned that the United Way branch risked losing tax-exempt status if it disbursed the funds.
The bill provides tax exemptions similar to those Congress granted to families of Sept. 11 victims. In this case, the bill guarantees that individual donations to assist the five families will be tax-deductible and that the United Way branch will retain its tax-exempt status.
The Riverside County arson fire began Oct. 26 and raged for six days. It destroyed more than 30 homes and charred about 40,000 acres. Authorities later arrested Raymond Lee Oyler, 36, and charged him with five counts of murder in the blaze. He has pleaded not guilty.
California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats, presented the Senate bill. A similar House measure was introduced by Reps. Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs), Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) and Ken Calvert (R-Corona).
"These firefighters are heroes, and their families should not suffer as a result of a bureaucratic pitfall," Feinstein said. "Congress can move fast when it wants, and I'm pleased that this is one of those occasions."
Boxer said she was "glad that Congress acted quickly to ensure that bureaucratic red tape" did not delay the distribution of the funds.
"The generous Americans who donated this money did not intend for it to go to the Internal Revenue Service," Calvert said.