NC, USA — State budget cuts could eliminate a program that uses inmates to fight forest fires in Western North Carolina, potentially hindering response in rugged mountain areas.
Gov. Bev Perdue’s proposed budget would do away with the BRIDGE program, which trains and uses young, nonviolent inmates to help manage the state’s natural resources, including providing aid in fighting fires and handling maintenance duties in state forests.
The program is a cooperative effort between the N.C. Division of Prisons and the N.C. Division of Forest Resources. It cost about $600,000 over two years and was cut to help close a projected two-year, $6.4 billion state budget gap, Perdue spokeswoman Chrissy Pearson said.
Fighting forest fires and working on trails also falls outside the Correction Department’s core mission, agency spokesman Keith Acree said.
While the governor’s budget did cut the program, Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, worked to get the program into the Senate budget that is due out later this month. He said the program is valuable to both inmates and his constituents.
It’s a little bit of a moving target, but it’s in there now, Queen said.
BRIDGE, which stands for Building, Rehabilitating, Instructing, Developing, Growing, Employing, was conceived in 1985 primarily as a result of serious mountain fires that year.
The program started in 1986 and now has 60 crewman in its program based out of the Western Youth Institution in Burke County.
The six-person crews assist the state Division of Forest Resources in fighting wild land fires, including providing the initial attack, building fire lines by hand when equipment cannot traverse steep mountain slopes and checking fires after they have been contained.
Losing the BRIDGE crews could diminish at least 50-60 percent of firefighting resources in WNC, said David Walker, a local district ranger with the N.C. Division of Forest Resources.
In the 32 counties west of Charlotte, the division has about 50 people who can respond initially to a forest fire, along with an additional 130 division personnel and 180 prearranged firefighters to help in later stages.
If these BRIDGE crews go away, we will lose the backbone of our firefighting effort in the mountains, Walker said.
Without the program, the state would have to find help from state and federal partners and local volunteers, said Brian Haines, a spokesman for the Division of Forest Resources.
Along with fighting at least 50 fires, including one in Swain County that claimed nine homes, Chris Davis also helped to build shelters and trails at DuPont State Forest and construct footbridges during his two years in the BRIDGE program. He had been incarcerated for conspiracy to traffic heroin.
Davis said the program gave him the skills to earn a degree in forestry management from Haywood Community College while also giving him a reason not to go back to his former life.
Early statistics from the program show that 12 percent of BRIDGE graduates are likely to return to prison, well below a national recidivism rate of 35 percent among men 18-21 years old.
It makes you feel like you’re useful in society, Davis said. It makes you feel good when you do something good to help somebody.