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Prisoners Help Fight Fires in West Virginia - 2002-09-15

Most of the western wildfires that made headlines this past summer burned across land owned by the federal government, including national forests and parkland. So Washington sent millions of dollars to the western states to pay for fighting those fires. However wildfires east of the Mississippi River usually occur on private property, with the entire cost falling to the individual states. With limited resources, several states are relying on a new source to help battle blazes. Erika Celeste takes us to Welch, West Virginia, where prison inmates are being trained to fight forest fires.

Fighting West Virginia's forest fires is hard work, the pay is lousy, and the job could be deadly, but there's a group of men who can't wait for the chance to do it. That's because these firefighters are inmates at the state's correctional facilities, and their alternative is being cooped up in a jail cell for 22 hours a day.

Assistant State Forester Coy Mullins says officials at the Division of Forestry decided to enlist inmates after seeing the success several southern states have had with similar programs.

"What this does is, it gives us another supply of manpower to help in the suppression of fires," he said. "The problem we have is, once it gets dry and we start having fires, we have them over such a large area that in a matter of days you really run out of trained fire fighters."

"I need everybody to get a fire rake, even the boss gets a fire rake."

With an average of 14,000 hectares destroyed by fire each year, and a state budget that only puts aside $750,000 to suppress the blazes, Charles Jones says many of his fellow inmates see this an opportunity to redeem themselves.

"Everybody makes mistakes, everybody still is equal, some people make mistakes," he said. "It's to give back to society for some of the things we may have done."

"It's not that bad up there, just take your time, make sure everyone's safe, make sure nobody gets hurt."

But first they need to be trained, and that's purpose of today's mock fire in the woods outside the town of Welch. The men have already spent eight hours in the classroom, learning about fire safety, weather conditions, and proper suppression techniques. Now it's time to apply it in the field.

In this scenario, fire is rapidly burning up the side of the mountain. Inmate crew leader Robert Forte divides his men into two teams and they head up the mountain with fire rakes. "If the wind blows it could shift a different way and you've got to be ready for that," he said.

The prison where these 27 trainees are serving time is in the southern part of West Virginia. Other inmate crews are trained and standing by in north and central regions of the state. Officials at the Division of Forestry hope to have 100 new recruits by the time fire season starts in mid-October.

Corrections Officer Delmer Winebarger, who oversees many of the men on road crews, says this new resource may be a little unconventional, but the public shouldn't worry about convicts wandering the countryside, armed with fire rakes.

"They're not hard criminals," Officer Winebarger explained. "We don't work anybody that's not up for parole within one to two years, there's just no real serious crimes. I don't think the public has any reason to be afraid of anybody we've ever worked."

"Ya'll ready? Let's get it!"

Assistant State Forester, Coy Mullins says fighting forest fires in West Virginia is more difficult than in the rest of the country because of the mountains.

"Here in West Virginia, particularly in the southern part of the state, the terrain is very steep, very rocky, the hollows are very narrow, and most of the people live along the creek," he said. "We have people that are careless, we have debris fires, the fire races up the side of the mountain. And with the steep, rugged terrain, once a fire starts it's very difficult to suppress."

Before the inmates can battle the blaze they have to climb hand over foot up the side of the mountain and get ahead of the fire. Once at the top, they use special fire rakes to clear away all the underbrush down to the bare ground. This is a different approach than fighting a house fire. According to Matt Dillon, the Fire Mobilization Coordinator, removing debris is the only way to stop a West Virginia forest fire.

"If you can imagine the fire triangle where you've got fuel on one side, you've got air on the other and you've got heat," Mr. Dillon explained. "On a structure fire, they're going to try to remove the air or heat with water and those type things, on a forest fire all we can remove is the fuel. So basically we build a perimeter around the fire or dig a trench, and by starving the fire of fuel the fire's contained."

If a fire isn't caught within the first hour it's almost impossible to put out. Matt Dillon says having trained inmate crews close by will help save critical time.

"They're housed in locations all across the state, and so if we have a particular area that blows up for us, we can tap into that resource, mobilize them to an area where we're having forest fires and put 'em to good work," he said.

Forestry officials hope having inmates help them and volunteer fire departments contain blazes will ease the state's reliance on expensive help from reserve militia troops. That would save the state money in the long run, but Matt Dillon points out, the inmates are not working for free. "We're going to pay these inmates the same thing we pay regular people," he said. "We pay a buck an hour. You're not going to get rich at it, but we are protecting the environment."

Corrections officer Delmer Winebarger says crews seldom complain about the pay, especially when they see their supervisors working alongside them.

"They respond really well to elders, this brings their self-esteem way back up when they get to come out instead of being locked up all day long," he said.

These men will remain qualified to fight forest fires when they're released from prison. With this mock blaze under control, the inmates head down the mountain, ready with advice for those who might someday take their places.

"Be in shape," suggests one." "Be ready to work," adds another.

"I thought they did an excellent job," officer Winebarger said. "It was really hot today, but they jumped right in there and constructed a good fire line. The next fire that I have, I'd be glad to take these people with me."

Over the past ten years, West Virginia has cut the number of wild fires by more than half, to an average of 1000 per year, thanks to such methods as stricter burning bans and a new hotline to report suspicious or unsafe fire activity. Forestry officials say having a corps of inmate fire fighters will help reduce those numbers even more.

"Gentlemen, if it does get hot and breaks over, we'll be looking for your help. I appreciate it."