Wash. inmates find firefighting rewarding on several levels

Paul Felch and his crewmates have been putting in upward of 16 hours a day digging fire lines and helping to save homes

By Rachel Alexander
The Spokesman-Review

SPOKANE, Wash. — The morning after a brush fire off Geiger Boulevard burned a few acres near the highway, the men of Heights 43 got to work. Wearing heavy black boots and green pants, they took to the still-smoking black earth, digging to find pockets of heat and snuff them out.

The 10-man crew wears red shirts – the only piece of their uniform that sets them apart from other wildland firefighters. They’re one of four inmate fire crews from Airway Heights Corrections Center, trained through a partnership with the Department of Natural Resources.

With fires burning all over Eastern Washington, Heights 43 is in high demand. David Danilson supervises the crew and said they’ve been called to 40 fires this summer: everything from 2-acre brush fires to the massive Carpenter Road Fire in Stevens County.

In late June, they were sent to save homes around the Sunnyvale fire, which broke out in Suncrest Park near Nine Mile Falls.

Paul Felch remembered standing on a balcony of a nearby home, just feet away from fire.

“You could reach out and touch it. The flames were right there,” he said.

Felch and his crewmates have been putting in upward of 16 hours a day digging fire lines and helping to save homes.

“I would put any DOC crew against any crew I’ve worked with. They’re hard chargers,” said Danilson, who’s worked in forestry and firefighting since 1988.

Fighting fires is grueling work, but inmates say being outside and doing a regular job helps them readjust to life on the outside before they’re released.

“When you start getting in trouble it just lowers your self-worth … This built me back up,” said Eli Van Sickle. “All of us on DNR, when we’re back at the prison we hold ourselves to a higher standard.”

Statewide, the Department of Natural Resources has programs for inmates in four adult prisons and the Naselle Youth Camp. The other facilities are Larch, Olympic and Cedar Creek corrections centers, which are all minimum security prisons on the West Side with fewer than 500 inmates. In total, 93 inmate crews have put in more than 100,000 hours fighting wildfires this summer, according to DNR spokeswoman Janet Pearce.

At Airway Heights, DNR draws from the prison’s 600 minimum-security inmates. The Department of Corrections screens inmates to decide who’s eligible to leave the prison, but otherwise stays out of the hiring process.

The men DNR selects for the crews get the same training as other wildland firefighters, a total of 88 hours covering fire behavior, firefighting tactics and chain saw use, according to Mark Klemme, the camp superintendent who oversees all Airway Heights crews for DNR. They have to pass the same physical test, carrying a 45-pound pack over 3 miles in under 45 minutes.

Crews also do forestry work like thinning when it’s not fire season and receive more training for those jobs.

The program is popular and usually has a waitlist, though this fire season has been so busy that all wait-listed inmates have been going out with crews to help work fires, said Danilson.

The department pays Heights inmates 62 cents per hour, or 93 cents per hour for overtime. With the hours they’re putting in, that means a monthly paycheck of about $250, Klemme said.

Most jobs inside the prison pay closer to a dollar per hour, inmates said, but they aren’t on DNR crews for the money.

“We’d do it for free,” Van Sickle said. “We take a lot of pride in what we’re doing.”

Forestry work can be risky, and two Airway Heights inmates have died on DNR crews in the past four years. In response, the department said it’s made significant changes to its training program and risk mitigation practices.

DNR was fined $25,100 by Labor & Industries for safety violations in the death of Danny Bergeson, who was electrocuted after a tree he was cutting hit a power line in October 2012.

One year later, 47-year-old Daniel Hall was killed by a falling tree while out on a fire crew. Labor & Industries issued a $5,500 fine and said DNR failed to take action after the dead tree was identified as a hazard two times before it fell and killed Hall.

In response to those deaths, Klemme said, the department shifted its training to include more classroom time on risk assessment and mitigation before workers go out into the field. All tasks forestry crews perform now have a list of associated risks, and crews are trained on what those risks are and how to mitigate them before they set out in the field.

The department also beefed up chain saw training, expanding from a 20-hour classroom session to the 32- to 40-hour training other firefighters get. These changes were made statewide, not just for Airway Heights crews.

“The process is a sound process,” Klemme said.

The Heights 43 crew is effusive about the benefits they receive from being on the crew.

They said being on a DNR crew gives them a chance to leave prison walls regularly, eat better food than the DOC provides and learn skills many hope will lead to a good job after they’re released.

Many said the DNR respects them as real firefighters, in contrast with manual labor jobs the DOC provides for inmates.

“I feel like here we’re treated as people, and with that other stuff we’re treated as prisoners,” said Dustin Bauserman.

Running a 10-man inmate crew costs about $5,000 per day, Klemme said, less than half the cost of a private crew.

“We are a good deal for the taxpayers,” he said.

Felch said firefighting has given him a sense of self-worth and hope for the future.

He’s serving his second sentence at Airway Heights, and said the first time he got out, it felt like nothing had really changed.

“I just got out and started using drugs instead of getting a job,” he said. Within a year, he was sent back to Airway Heights after he pleaded guilty to theft and assault after stealing a flashlight from a Wal-Mart.

Now, he’s hoping to get a job doing forestry work when he’s released.

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes in the past, but I can look forward to the future,” he said.

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