This wildfire season has been exceptionally rough for the Northwest. Resources are stretched thin across the region and a state of emergency has been declared in Washington state.
In Oregon, officials have deployed more than 200 prison inmates to help fight fires. They’re a part of a larger program for low-level offenders run by the Oregon Department of Corrections and the Oregon Department of Forestry. More than 350 inmates from eight institutions around the state participate in the fire program.
Inmates provide support to fire crews in a variety of ways, according to Correctional Lt. Justin Wylie with the Oregon Department of Corrections.
“We actually have inmates who are trained to go out on the line and fight fires,” Wylie told OPB All Things Considered Host Kate Davidson. “We provide inmates for the mobile kitchen units to prepare all the meals.
“We also provide inmates to maintain the sanitation levels of the camp and work down in the fire cache unit, where they hand out the supplies that firefighters need.”
Inmates receive the same fire certification training as anyone else who might work for the Department of Forestry. According to Wylie, this program helps provide them with marketable job skills for life after prison.
“I’ve had inmates on fire crews — you know, on an inmate fire crew — I send them back to the institution for their release date, and then a week later I see them back out on the same fire with a contract crew.”
But the program, and programs like it, are not without their challenges. Earlier this month, inmates walked away from the Stouts Creek Fire in southern Oregon and the Chelan Complex in north central Washington. The latter inmate shot himself in the head after running away from officers, and had to be flown to Seattle for treatment.
Wylie said authorities supervise the inmates constantly to minimize problems, but anytime inmates are taken into the community there are risks.
“Resources are stretched thin across the nation, and it’s just another resource for the Department of Forestry to use,” he said.
You can hear Davidson’s full conversation with Wylie through the audio player above.