State trains more inmates as wildland firefighters ahead of fire season

16 March 2021

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USA – As Arizona looks ahead to what could be a busy fire season, state officials are hoping inmates might present part of a solution.

Gov. Doug Ducey this month signed into law a new initiative this month that, in part, would train about 700 Arizona Department of Corrections inmates as wildland firefighters.

The program is couched as a win-win situation, providing more manpower to fight wildfires for forest restoration work, while providing the inmates involved with an opportunity to build skills before their release.

“I’m confident that this will help reduce recidivism by giving state inmates the opportunity to learn job skills for employment upon release,” Ducey said during a call with rural press. “I know among some folks a stigma remains, but the overwhelming majority of the public has seemed open-minded to this this opportunity.”

Inmates assisting with firefighting efforts is not new in Arizona. The state has had about 200 inmates in such programs, and some of those crews even helped respond to the Museum Fire near Flagstaff in 2019.

Later that year during a joint meeting, the Flagstaff City Council and Coconino County Board of Supervisors recognized the efforts of the Perryville prison all-female fire crew who helped fill and stack sandbags in concerns about fears of post-fire flooding.

As inmates still need to be enrolled in programs and then trained, the increase in manpower may not be seen immediately, especially in terms of work reducing fuel loads within forests, said Chuck Podolak, the governor’s natural resources policy advisor.

The extra help on forest restoration work likely won’t be seen until later this year, closer to the end of the traditional fire season.

“We will continue to work with the Forest Service and [the Four Forest Restoration Initiative] while we advanced the state priorities on Arizona’s healthy forests initiative. So we won’t forget the Forest Service, but we’re going to do what we can on state lands and private lands,” Podolak said.

The bill also provided about $23 million to support those efforts.

Podolak said portions of that money will go to equipping the new crews. Money will also be needed for the increased labor costs at the Department of Corrections and the Department of Forestry and Fire Management for running and planning the program and supervising the crews.

“So these inmates need the right vehicles, they need the right chainsaws and other equipment to cut and chip and take care of the trees,” Podolak said.

Podolak said after they have served their time, many of the inmates in the program are able to directly transition to working in state fire crews at the Department of Forestry and Fire Management.

“We are working with the Fire Chiefs Association to make sure there’s additional pathways for these, these inmates once they finish their time and finish the program,” Podolak said.

The move comes as the region is expecting generally drier and warmer weather associated with the La Nina weather phenomenon. Much of the state and all of Coconino County remains in extreme drought despite some recent storms.

And Ducey pointed out that 2020 was also a particularly bad one for wildfires across the state.

“As we saw last year, wildfires continue to pose a serious threat to our communities. Wildfires burned over 900,000 acres of land last year. It was the second most destructive year in our state’s history,” Ducey said.

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