Inmate crews do part to fight wildfires

Inmate crews do part to fight wildfires

10 July 2010

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USA — Recently, the 628-acre Parkdale Canyon Fire, 14 miles west of Cañon City, utilized around 275 firefighters at its peak. One of those crews was Juniper Valley, a part of the State Wildland Inmate Fire Team.

SWIFT was created after Colorado’s 2001 legislative sessions, in response to Colorado’s Inmate Disaster Relief legislation and was tasked with forming a labor pool from incarcerated offenders that safely could be utilized to fight wildland fires, aid with flood relief, as well as assist with cleanup after other natural or manmade disasters.

“There are lots of benefits to using us,” said Colorado Correctional Industries Division Manager Jack Laughlin. “We’re an integral part of what goes on in the wildland community.”

Juniper Valley was a part of the recent Wildland Fire Academy at Cañon City High School the week before the Parkdale Canyon Fire.

“We hosted the welcome dinner,” Laughlin said. “We paid for the whole thing and utilized the culinary program here.”

With two full-time staff members, the SWIFT program maintains three 24-member crews and takes 18-member crews to assist in wildland fire fighting or other disaster relief programs. Most of the western United States utilizes offender firefighting crews. Colorado’s program was initiated under Colorado Correction Industries, making it a taxpayer neutral program.

“We don’t get any general taxpayer support for this program,” Laughlin said, “or any of our Colorado Corrections Industries.”

Geared up for the first time in 2001, the newly formed crews were involved with the 2002 fire season, one of the worst Colorado ever has experienced, when then Gov. Bill Owens declared a State of Emergency.

“We were out 65 days from the middle of June until Labor Day,” Laughlin said. “They didn’t have any more than four days in at any given time.”

Choosing offenders for the program is a carefully thought-out process, Laughlin said.

“Inmates in the program, by statute, have to be minimum or minimum-restrictive custody,” Laughlin said. “We further require them to have their high school diploma or GED. They must be incarcerated for a non-violent crime. They can’t be a sex offender, have medical or psychological issues. They must be program-compliant. They must be over 18 and report-free for over six months.”

Interested offenders must pass a prequalification fitness test, which includes a mile and half run in less than 10 minutes.

“We require them to waive a parole or community placement for a fire season,” Laughlin said. “Then, the staff interview and select.”

Traveling to different facilities throughout the state, staff will cull through 200 to 300 applications each year. The state now has three full-time crews of 20 to 24 offenders. One is located in Cañon City and is dispatched through the Pueblo Interagency Dispatch Zone. Another crew is located at Buena Vista and one in Rifle.

“Our crews are a Type 2 Hand Crew,” Laughlin said. “We do the exact same training as anyone who is going to work on a wildland fire does. The inmates receive a red card, which shows their certification. We partner with the Colorado State Forest Service.”

In addition to fighting wildland fires, the crews also work on fuel mitigation. As a part of the program, they added a full-time fuels and trail building crew in 2006.

“We did a big project this year out in Dawson Ranch,” Laughlin said.

John Dapice joined the offender firefighting crew two years ago, with the hope of continuing in the same line of work upon release from East Cañon Correctional. During the Parkdale Canyon Fire, he was a squad boss.

“I thought this might be a good program for me,” Dapice said. “It seemed like it would work me and give me some good skills. It’s taught me responsibility. I would love to do this on the streets. It’s a great career. It’s got a lot of advancement opportunities with the classes. We’re out there really fighting fires.

“We are not treated like inmates out there. We’re out there risking our lives, just like anyone else. It’s a good feeling — knowing what you do has meaning.”

Christopher Gallegos is new to the SWIFT team this year.

“I never, ever dreamed I’d be able to do something like this,” Gallegos said. “Given the opportunity, I dedicated everything I had to get on this fire crew. Being able to go out there and have people put their trust in us is a pretty good feeling.”

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