180 prison inmates fight wildfires across Oregon's parched forests

One hundred eighty inmates fought wildfires across the sun-dried forests and grasslands of central and eastern Oregon on Wednesday

By Bryan Denson
The Oregonian

PORTLAND, Ore. — One hundred eighty inmates fought wildfires across the sun-dried forests and grasslands of central and eastern Oregon on Wednesday.

Eighteen inmate firefighting crews, accompanied by corrections officers, worked on the fire lines of the Moccasin Hill fire near Klamath Falls to the Waterman Complex and White River fires in central Oregon to the Hurricane Creek fire in Wallowa County, the Department of Corrections reported.

The prisoners are trained at minimum-security prisons across Oregon and volunteer for the hazardous work. Many of them keep tuned to weather reports during the dry summer months, hoping for a chance to prove their mettle on the outside.

For many, the dangerous, physically exhausting firefighting work amounts to high-adventure camping trips outside the razor-wire fences. Some hope to work on civilian firefighting crews after their release.

"Staff and inmates who participate in the firefighting operations are trained and qualified to meet national standards, receive yearly training, and will be provided with a certification of program completion," the Department of Corrections reported.

Inmate firefighters are closely supervised by corrections officers.

More than 100 inmate firefighters were dispatched to the Two Bulls fire northwest of Bend last month.

The work is part of a long tradition in Oregon. The State Board of Forestry inaugurated a program in 1949 to re-seed and replant hundreds of thousands of acres that were scorched by the 1933 forest fires known as theTillamook Burn, prison officials say.

Two years later, they said, the prison system built the South Fork Forest Camp to provide aid in restoring Oregon's forests. The first of the camp's primitive tar-paper buildings were built at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. The firefighting program now travels with kitchen crews and mobile showers.

More than 800 Oregon inmates logged hundreds of hours at 36 wildfires in Oregon last year alone, the Department of Corrections reported.

"In addition to the cost savings, minimizing property damage, and preventing forest fires, inmate firefighting programs have been proven to help offenders prepare for re-entry into society," corrections officials reported.

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