COLORADO’S WILDLAND FIRES WORSE IN STATE’S HISTORY
SWIFT CREWS GAIN UNPRECEDENTED EXPERIENCE FIGHTING THE BLAZES
By Cheryl Ahumada, Sales/Marketing Coordinator, Colorado Correctional Industries and Tracy Harmon, The Pueblo Chieftain
In Colorado, it’s a basic necessity in our fireplaces on cold-winter days and the focal point of many family camping trips with the kids in the summer. But for the residents of Colorado, we’ve been glued to our television sets since March watching the wildland fires erupt in our beautiful rocky mountains, destroying thousands of acres of pristine forests, forcing wildlife from their dens, and watching some of our friends, families and neighbor’s homes go up in smoke.
During the months of June and July 2012, Colorado experienced two devastating fires, which will go down in the record books for causing the most destruction by fire in Colorado’s history. The High Park Fire in Fort Collins consumed 87,284 acres and 259 homes before being contained after 22 days ablaze. On the heels of that fire, the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs ignited and, after 17 days of burning, destroyed 18,247 acres, 346 homes, the infamous Flying W Ranch, and claimed two lives before being contained.
Some 1,500 fire personnel from surrounding cities and states worked tirelessly in the grueling 100° plus heat, day-after-day to save our land and property. Working with these crews, the Colorado Correctional Industries (CCi) Juniper Valley State Wildland Inmate Fire Team (SWIFT) was there in the thick of it all. Since March, CCi’s SWIFT crews have been deployed to over 20 fires and 25 crew assignments, and those numbers keep climbing.
CCi’s SWIFT program is in its 11th summer of battling blazes. Crews have worked on over 250 incidents, with 900 days on fire assignments since inception in 2002. And within that time, 700 Inmates have been certified with an S-130/S-190 Red Card, which qualifies them to work on the fire line. The certified training inmates receive in CCi’s program is comparable to what private and government trained wildland firefighters receive. To be considered for the program and training, inmates’ crimes must be of a non-violent nature, they must be low custody/low risk inmates, be report free for six months, be within three years of their Parole Eligibility Date (PED), and within 10 years of their Mandatory Release Date (MRD). They must also possess their GED or diploma, pass a rigorous fitness test, and waive placement in community corrections or parole for at least one fire season.
The program is run like a business – without using tax dollars. CCi charges $4,500 a day per crew, which is close to half the usual $8,000-$10,000 daily cost of a federal firefighting crew, stated Jack Laughlin, CCi Services Division Manager who oversees the fire team.
“Inmates are learning valuable work experience. For many, it is their first job and it pays better than the normal 60-cents a day inmate wage. With the incentive plan we have established, inmates can make $200 to $300 a month during a very active fire fighting cycle. They get $6 a day fire pay,” Laughlin stated. Inmates also earn an extra day of good time for everyday they fight a fire, so the work can help shorten their sentences.
Some of our inmates go on to work in the field after release. One Buena Vista inmate was released to Durango, CO where he attended college and worked as a seasonal firefighter. “Now he is a smoke jumper and a pretty outstanding young man. He took advantage of the program and proved that if you are open to it and receptive to the positive environment, the feel-good impact goes well beyond the job skills,” Laughlin said.
CCi’s SWIFT program has three fire crews based out of Buena Vista, Rifle and Canon City correctional facilities, and has two fuel and trail crews. To keep up with this year’s fire season’s demands, the trail and timber crew from Rifle was increased by ten inmates, and a temporary fourth fire crew was trained and has been fighting fires since mid-July. Each year, when the fire season wanes, all of CCi’s crews work together on forest thinning, mitigation, planting, fire rehabilitation, beetle kill removal and trail construction.
THIS LETTER FROM AN EMT RESPONDER WAS RECENTLY RECEIVED BY CCI:
June 20, 2012
To Jack Laughlin, CCi Services Division Manager
My name is Claire Hawks and I had the privilege of working with the Juniper Valley SWIFT Crew during the High Park fire. My initial interaction was responding to an injury one of the crew members experienced. We were in the process of transporting this crew member to a medical facility when the fire burned over our egress while we were trying to get out.
Over the course of the next three hours, I had the honor of watching these gentlemen work this rapidly moving fire. They went above and beyond, giving my partner and me two of their fire shelters. Realizing I was nervous, they explained what was happening step-by-step, and told us what we would need to do, should the fire turn.
These men are not only well educated, skilled, hard working guys, they are some of the most polite and courteous firefighters I have ever met. From the men who just started this year through the experienced crew bosses, I would like to say they made a very scary day
for me much better.
I would particularly like to voice that Inmate Cain was extraordinary in being the one who helped us the most when the situation was intense. I believe him to be a very sincere person … a true asset to your team.
I hope this letter makes it to the ears of the team and I cannot thank you all enough, from the bottom of my heart.
For further information about CCi’s SWIFT or Trails/Timber programs, please contact Jack Laughlin at 719-440-2234 or visit our website www.coloradoci.com.