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Incarcerated Give Back by Fighting Fires

June 1, 2022

By Brendan Baptiste Communications Office
Incarcerated individual working for DNR to prepare for wildfire season

Incarcerated individual working for DNR to prepare for wildfire season. (Photo courtesy of Susan Biller, Department of Corrections)

The Wildland Fire Leadership Council visited Spokane Valley during their 2022 Field Tour. The council was able to visit with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to see the Washington Department of Natural Resources Camps Program. This program is a joint effort with the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), that aids in resource protection of state lands.

Incarcerated individuals at Airways Heights, Cedar Creek, Larch, and Olympic Corrections Centers work to provide aid in firefighting, chainsaw operation, silviculture practices, and machine and auto mechanics. Projects include trail construction, maintenance, noxious weed removal, tree planting, and illegal dump site cleanup can help aid in the safety of state and public lands. Incarcerated individuals are compensated for their work and can also receive training and job skills in firefighting, chainsaw operation, silviculture practices, and machine and auto mechanics.

Since 1939, the Correctional Camps Programs have provided cost effective service on state and public lands. Incarcerated individuals, both adult and juvenile, work to assist in year-round forestry projects. Working beyond the barriers of a prison fence helps to keep individuals active and allows them to participate in meaningful work across the state.

Washington State is home to nine national forests covering over 20 million acres making more than half of the state forested land. Although the stereotype of the Pacific Northwest is cloudy and wet between the months of April and September, wildfires still cause havoc costing the state over $100 million annually towards fire suppression. In 2021, Airway Heights Camp Crews responded to over 240 wildfires making their work extremely valuable during fire season. Airway Heights Superintendent James Key is thankful for the partnership with DNR and the employable job skills provided to incarcerated workers. “The incarcerated workers from the Airway Heights Camp crew alongside their supervisors, aid in making Washington public lands safer and healthier for all to enjoy.” The additional help coming from Correctional Camp Programs is greatly appreciated across Washington State.

Reducing the publics costs towards fire suppression is not the only benefit to the program. Incarcerated individuals obtain a wide range of hands-on experience, and all crew members are required to attend the National Wildfire Coordinating Group courses. They will also be certified as a Fire Fighter 2 upon completion. These skills can potentially translate to future employment at DNR once released.

Alex Maravilla, an incarcerated individual participating in the DNR program, spoke to the council to tell his story. He says the program has taught him many important life skills such as leadership, dependability, and communication. “I have been given a great opportunity and, in my opinion, the best part of this program is being able to help people and give back to the community.” says Maravilla.