Like thousands of contract firefighters hired by the government, Groff figured that if anything ever happened to him, either his private employers or the government would take care of his wife and six children.
That day, maneuvering above the North Coast wildfire started by a couple of Hells Angels who blew up their meth lab, Groff died in a midair collision.
The two Hells Angels were convicted and sent to prison on several charges related to the fire. But another, six-year-and-counting courthouse battle continues.
Today, Groff's widow, Christine Wells-Groff of Santa Rosa, will file a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court in her quest to receive the death benefits her husband had assumed would be provided.
Already, she has won and lost. One federal court judge ruled that she was entitled to the federal Public Safety Officers' Benefits, known as PSOB, that survivors of government employees receive. But an appellate judge later overturned that decision.
At issue is whether the thousands of contract employees who undertake dangerous duty on behalf of the taxpayers should be entitled to the same benefits as government employees.
"Everyone else has given up after their first denial, but I feel very strongly about this as an issue," said Wells-Groff. "I've already spent more than anything I would receive back. I've mortgaged my house to pay for attorneys in this six-year, six-figure battle. This is for the others now."
Groff was flying a state-operated air tanker that day and even wearing a California Department of Forestry uniform, but technically he was a contract employee.
Nonetheless, legal experts say there's only a slim chance the high court will even review the case, much less reverse the appellate court.
The benefits program, started by Congress in 1976 to help recruit and retain public safety workers, includes a lump-sum payoff to survivors of federal, state or local government employees killed in the line of duty, as well as ongoing benefits in some cases. The suit has been filed against the federal government since it administers the program and, in this case, denied the claim for benefits.
U.S. Justice Department attorneys have sought to clearly label the benefits for direct government employees only, citing multimillion-dollar costs of making any broader definition.
Why, they argue, should taxpayers finance benefits for employees working under contract to the government?
Michael Brook, Wells-Groff's Santa Rosa attorney, said that "when Congress enacted this, it was seen to help with morale and recruitment and was a small token of public appreciation for the risks these people face.
"Contract employees face the same dangers as they protect the public."
But if they die, they are only covered by contract company life-insurance programs that pay far less.
Wells-Groff, 49, received a life insurance award of $50,000 through her husband's employer, San Joaquin Helicopters, but no ongoing benefits. The public safety officers benefits would have entitled her to a lump sum of about $250,000, plus ongoing benefits.
Contractors' death benefits are limited, government and union officials contend, because the firms are trying to squeeze as much profit as possible out of government pacts.
Contractors who were contacted about the matter declined to comment.
Associated Airtanker Pilots, a group that represents the tanker pilots, says since 1958 more than 160 aerial firefighters "have paid the ultimate price and many of their families have been financially devastated as a result."
After Groff's death, the state Legislature approved providing pilots under contract with Cal Fire, formerly the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, with death benefits comparable to those received by government-paid firefighters and public safety workers. But that law came too late to help Groff's family.
Associated Airtanker Pilots applauded the move but said "most of our nation's aerial firefighters are still without protection for their families."
Despite the pleas, congressional proposals to extend government-worker PSOBs to contract pilots have been opposed by the U.S. Forest Service.
In one report, officials said the move would establish "an unwarranted precedent of providing government benefits to other private-sector contracted people" and cost the Justice Department as much as $23 million potentially hampering the ability to the death benefits to government workers.
But one factor driving that cost is the trend to use so many contract employees a move pushed by the Bush administration because it's seen as a cost-saving, privatizing measure.
Hundreds of plane and helicopter pilots and thousands of firefighters on the ground are now employed by private firms under contract to the U.S. government.
The pilots fight fires for federal agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management, working for contractors that supply the aircraft and maintenance.
"It's more cost efficient to use contractors for aircraft and ground crews," said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes. "Fire season is relatively short, outside of California, and it's too costly to maintain government crews year around."
The thin line between being a government employee and a contract employee doing government work seemed to be especially important to federal claims court Judge Lynn Bush, who handed Wells-Groff her initial victory back in July 2006.
"Groff was officially recognized as being functionally within the California Department of Forestry," Bush said, and was "serving a public agency in an official capacity."
She also noted that "survivors of some nongovernmental employees were awarded (government death) benefits during the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks."
But in July of this year, a federal appellate court overturned her decision, saying Congress essentially remained silent on whether contract employees would be included in PSOBs. The Justice Department has interpreted their legislation to mean that they are not.
Now, it may be the Supreme Court's turn to weigh in and possibly Wells-Groff's last chance, not just for her family but for those of other firefighters.
"There are so many kids out there fighting fire on contract for the U.S. Forest Service," said Wells-Groff. "My court case is really for them, as well as the pilots. It's pretty damn sad, what our government does to its own people hiring contractors to hire kids so they don't have to pay benefits."
Contract Steve Geissinger at email@example.com or (916) 447-9302.