Wash. DOC inmate firefighters moving to new facility in 2024
Wildland firefighter inmates learn marketable job skills while earning minimum wage
By Matthew Esnayra
The Daily News
LONGVIEW, Wash. — A Longview Department of Corrections facility could house incarcerated individuals trained to fight wildfires starting in 2024.
The Washington State Department of Natural Resources and the Washington State Department of Corrections are discussing potentially housing up to 70 inmates who were previously trained to fight fires at a Yacolt minimum-security prison — set to close in the fall — to the Longview Reentry Center on First Avenue, according to Washington State Department of Corrections spokesperson Christopher Wright.
Longview’s center is more insulated from being affected by wildfires and therefore more secure for housing fire crews compared to the Larch Corrections Center, located east of Vancouver in more rural Yacolt, according to a DOC press release.
In 2022, the Nakia Creek Fire near Yacolt caused an evacuation of Larch Corrections Center, forcing DOC to relocate prisoners temporarily.
To make room for the inmates, current Longview Reentry Center residents will have to move to a different reentry center, Wright said.
The Larch Corrections Center is set to shut down in October due to issues ranging from millions of dollars in much-needed repairs, being remotely located, and not having adequate programs such as mental and medical health, according to the DOC news release.
Another reason for Larch’s closure is the Blake Decision, a 2021 Washington State Supreme Court ruling that struck down the state’s drug possession law as unconstitutional. The new state law reduces the penalty from a felony to a gross misdemeanor. DOC states the change left them with “a surplus of minimum-security beds” and “no need for additional beds in the future.”
How does the training work?
The Longview Reentry Center, which opened in 1992, is located at 1821 First Ave. near the county jail. Inmates at the 100-bed facility can join work or training programs. The DOC categorizes the center as one of its lowest-secured facilities.
Wright said the firefighting training program has a dual purpose: it helps residents who “face an increasing wildfire threat,” and ex-convicts reentering society.
“It allows incarcerated individuals to earn minimum wage, (and) learn marketable skills they’ll be able to use after their release,” he said in an email.
The Department of Corrections and the Department of Natural Resources jointly manage these Correctional Camps. DNR trains and pays inmates in the fire program at minimum wage.
Inmates in the firefighting program are chaperoned by DOC guards while in the field.
Camp crews receive training in firefighting, chainsaw operation, fire suppression, machine and auto mechanics skills, and managing forest growth. They can also support professional firefighters by digging fire lines and making meals for those battling wildfires on the front.
DNR spokesperson Janet Pearce said inmate firefighting crews are used often, especially in the initial attack of a blaze. In 2022, inmates served tens of thousands of hours of firefighting across Washington state, Wright said.
The Correctional Camps Program has been around since 1939, and the program includes adults and juvenile prisoners, according to the DOC’s website.
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