Inmate firefighters: Taking the heat, away from the cooler

For convicts, battling wildfires can provide a break from monotony – and a cheap alternative to paid firefighters

Inmate firefighters walk along a highway near Yosemite National Park in California after a burnout operation to battle a devastating fire this August.
Jae C. Hong/AP

Daron Ehling fought 19 wildfires this year — long hours of cutting firebreaks and felling trees in the sweltering heat of eastern Washington. In 2012 he went out on 16 fires. And the year before that?

"The only thing I knew about a chain saw was how much they'd give me at a pawn shop," he says.

Ehling is serving time at the Airway Heights Corrections Center, a prison near Spokane; he ended up there after getting caught breaking into houses in order to support a heroin addiction. He says the adrenaline rush of heading out to a fire reminds him a little of breaking into houses, but it's far more fulfilling: "I can still get that same kind of excitement doing something good, knowing there's a purpose behind it."

Ehling works on a 10-person crew, one of four run out of Airway Heights in collaboration with the state's Department of Natural Resources (DNR). They work alongside the DNR's civilian engine crews on both initial attack (getting control of wildfires) and mop-up (the long and laborious process of making sure they're entirely out). Andrew Stenbeck, district manager for the DNR, says the inmates involvement is essential to keeping on top of all the fires.

That's become a common story in Western states. Inmates fight fires in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana; in Oregon more than 800 inmates worked on fires this summer. "We couldn’t afford to have paid firefighters doing the same work the inmate firefighters are doing," says Julie Hutchinson, a battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, better known as Cal Fire. At least two crews of inmates are dispatched to every fire in California — nearly 6,000 this year. Six hundred inmates battled this fall's Rim fire in the Yosemite and Stanislaus national forests.

Climate change is fueling longer, more-intense fire seasons, according to the National Climate Assessment; climate models indicate there will be more devastating fires to come. That means the cost of fighting fires is spiraling upward even as budgets are cut. (The federal spending cuts known as the sequester, for example, eliminated some 500 wildland firefighting jobs and money for 50 engines this year). The upshot is that the West may find itself depending even more on inmate labor to keep fires in check. It's a reality that raises complicated questions. With so much reliance on prisoners, how do you walk the line between rehabilitation and exploitation?

The fire was right there! I was digging a line, it was burning my face, burning my feet, and I'm like, 'I don’t know if I want to do this right now.'

Andrew Smith

an inmate firefighter

Wilderness firefighting is tough work. The inmates often labor in 90-degree heat; they carry packs that often weigh 50 pounds or more and face not only fire but also rattlesnakes, bees, rough terrain and falling debris. Andrew Smith, an exuberant man who is serving time for selling drugs, laughs when he remembers going out on his first fire three years ago, saying, "The fire was right there! I was digging a line, it was burning my face, burning my feet, and I'm like, 'I don't know if I want to do this right now.'" He once encountered a bear and, another time, narrowly avoided being hit by a falling rock. "It's a dangerous job. You really have to keep your head on a swivel."

In 2012 a 22-year-old Airway Heights crew member was killed only a few months before his release date, electrocuted while felling trees near a power line. Fatalities are rare when inmates are put on the front line of firefighting, but programs in other states have, likewise, had instances of injury and death. Stenbeck says he worries frequently about the safety of inmate and civilian crews alike. "Every March, I start to get knots in my stomach," he says.

For their work, Airway Heights crew members earn 62 cents an hour. For overtime hours, it's 92 cents. That's because, in general, prison inmates are not covered by labor protections like the guaranteed minimum wage, according to Noah Zatz, a professor of labor law at Yale University. But Zatz says the legal arguments for that tend to be inconsistent. No court, he says, has ruled that inmates lose their labor rights because they broke the law.

Some courts have decreed that prison labor exists apart from the open market — even though some products and services made or performed by inmates end up in the regular market, displacing civilian workers and companies. (The prison labor market has evolved far beyond license plates, serving a wide variety of for-profit companies. Inmates in Colorado, for example, raise tilapia for Whole Foods and run a water-buffalo dairy that supplies the world's largest mozzarella maker. Elsewhere, inmates make solar panels and parts for Patriot missiles.)

The most common defense of such programs, says Zatz, is that prison labor isn't traditional employment — and therefore doesn't trigger labor protections — if its main goal is rehabilitation of prisoners, not economic gain.

This can be a tricky argument, particularly when states openly acknowledge that they couldn’t afford to fight fires as effectively if they were using regular workers. (In California, says Hutchinson, "that's a burden the budget would not even be able to consider.")

"The basic question" that the U.S. has yet to seriously address, says Zatz, "is whether or not the vulnerability of prisoners, because they are completely within the power of the state while incarcerated, is an appropriate basis for the state to get access to extremely low-cost, extremely controllable labor sources."

Some prison-reform advocates point to another potential issue: What if states' dependence on inmate labor leads to harsher sentencing laws or otherwise affects how offenders are treated?

In California, overcrowded prisons are undergoing a court-ordered realignment, with many nonviolent offenders' — prime candidates for fire crews — being released or moved to county jails. The state initially feared it would have to cut inmate fire crews but now says they will remain close to fully staffed — in part because of agreements with county jails and in part because the state changed the way it classifies prisoners' security levels. According to Hutchinson, the program is too crucial to lose. "If you see a fire in California, you’re going to see people in orange," she says.

You feel like you're a normal person. You don’t have this huge barrier that's put between you — 'I broke the law, so I’m no longer part of society.'

Alairic Sondergaard

an Airway Heights inmate, on fighting fires

When there's a big fire on the news, James Jackson, another Airway Heights crew member, isn't thinking about the legal details of inmate labor. He's finding the location on a map and hoping his crew gets called up to fight it.

Jackson is serving time for a second-degree murder conviction. He was an accomplice in a stabbing when he was 16. He's been in prison for 15 years and on the fire crew for one. The chance to get out of the gates means a lot to him. He describes the time two eagles flew overhead while his crew was doing some pre-emptive thinning. (In between fires, they cut trees to reduce fuel load in densely grown forests.). He says, "It's a lot better than looking at a barbed-wire fence."

Life in prison is monotonous, says Alairic Sondergaard, who was convicted of growing marijuana and illegally possessing handguns and is wrapping up his first season on the Airway Heights crew. "Day in, day out, it's pretty much the same routine," he says. "We hear the bell and we get food. We go to the yard."

But every fire is its own challenge. Sondergaard and Jackson proudly remember containing a fire that closed a state highway in August. Known as the Homestead fire, it burned a steep, rocky hillside. "It was pretty much vertical from top to bottom," says Sondergaard. The crew had to dig a line — use chain saws, Pulaski axes and shovels to cut an 18-inch swath clear down to the mineral soil so the fire can’t progress — all the way up. As they worked, air crews dropped water from nearby Long Lake on the fire. The hand crews had to dodge the water dumps, then spread the wet mud that resulted.

Sometimes the crews do what's known as direct attack — digging a line right next to an active fire. It can be so hot, says Jackson, that you can't dig for long. "You take a couple of scoops, and you have to back up, just 'cause the heat," he says. "Take a couple more scoops, back up."

With the Homestead fire, the flames were so big, the crew worried about getting outflanked before they could complete the line. They dug a little farther away, but when they were done, there was still a lot of green, burnable material, which is a risk. "You don't want anything sparking up, hopping over the line," says Jackson. So he and Sondergaard used drip torches to create back burn, systematically clearing out the rest of the fuel while the fire raged next to them.

Different inmate firefighting programs have different rules about who can be involved. At Airway Heights, inmates must pass a physical-fitness test and a series of classroom tests that they take over the course of three weeks of training. They must be in minimum-security custody, which means, among other things, that they're within sight of their release date — a deterrent to escape attempts, which can add years to a sentence. Anyone incarcerated for a sexual or violent crime has to get special approval, which will, in part, be contingent on having no escape attempts in the preceding 10 years or any violent infractions for one year. Patrick McCarren, who oversees off-site work crews from Airway Heights, says the big worries are escape, endangering the public and inmates' taking in contraband from the outside. When a crew is spread out at a fire site, it can be difficult for the supervisor to maintain visual contact with each offender. He is required, however, to record their locations at least once an hour.

Inmate fire crews regularly work alongside civilian crews. "They know that we're from prison, and we know we're from prison, so there's — I don't want to say tension, but hesitation, maybe," says Jackson. "But once you work along somebody for eight hours straight, I think that's kind of forgotten."

Hutchinson remembers her first time working alongside inmates as an 18-year-old firefighter in California. "Being one of the few women and realizing they had chain saws and axes and all these things, I had that immediate thought, 'Oh my gosh, this can't be good.'" But she sees things differently now. "There are fires I'd still be on today if we didn't have those inmate fire crews to cut that line," she says.

For Sondergaard, these interactions are sometimes the best part of the job. "You feel like you're a normal person," he says. "You don't have this huge barrier that's put between you — 'I broke the law, so I'm no longer part of society.'"

I busted my butt for 62 cents an hour fighting fires. I can definitely go home and do whatever job.

William Thompson

an inmate who spent three seasons fighting fires

Experiences like that support the view that fighting fires helps rehabilitate prisoners.

Daron Ehling has been locked up before — he was in eight facilities in Ohio before arriving at Airway — and has given a lot of thought to what keeps people in or out of prison. The DNR program, he says, is a form of rehabilitation, offering a gradual path back to society that he hasn't seen in other prison programs.

"What do you do when you just get put out on the street?" he says. "Well, you do what you're comfortable with. You do what you have always known … You get out. You don't have a chance. You're already destined to come back." To Ehling, who expects to be released within the next two years, not offering a program like this would be the unfair thing.

At Airway Heights, many of the inmates in the program hope their new skills will help them land a job after they're released. In California, where agencies say they've seen lower recidivism rates for inmates who have worked on fire crews, some Cal Fire battalion chiefs even got their start as inmate firefighters, usually as juvenile offenders.

When Jackson passes forests on his way to and from fires, he keeps a lookout through the bus window for dense sections and thinks about the best way to fireproof them. Despite the danger, Smith says he hopes to continue fighting fires when he gets out. "I never found anything I liked doing. And then it's crazy — I come in here and … find something challenging, that I like doing." Inmates say firefighting has taught them teamwork, responsibility and a strong work ethic.

William Thompson, convicted of dealing drugs, just finished his third season fighting fires. He served on a saw team, an elite position. In February his sentence will be up, and he will be going home to 3-year-old twins he barely knows.

Three years on the same job, he says, was a personal victory that gives him hope for the future. "That's probably the longest that I've been employed for a single job in my whole entire life," he says. "This here proved to me that I can stay employed, stay productive." He plans to take his twins to camping spots and rope swings he has discovered during his time on the crew and to study automotive mechanics at a community college.

"I busted my butt for 62 cents an hour fighting fires," he says. "I can definitely go home and do whatever job."

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