As wildfires rage across Arizona and threaten numerous communities, legislators and forestry officials have had to come up with innovative ways to combat the problem.
One such solution is deploying prison inmates on forest clearance crews. There are currently hundreds of inmates working on fire crews across the state, with 700 more slated to join in the near future.
The infusion of new workers comes as several major population centers in Arizona are threatened by large wildfires, including Flagstaff and East Valley communities like Gilbert and Mesa. Last year, wildfires destroyed just shy of 1 million acres of land across the state, and this year’s blazes have the potential to be even more destructive.
The idea of enlisting inmates to help fight wildfires was initially devised by Republican legislator Gail Griffin, who represents District 14 in southeastern Arizona. With the support of Gov. Doug Ducey, Griffin sponsored House Bill 2440, which called for the establishment of partnerships between the Department of Forestry and Fire Management and various public agencies, with the goal of simultaneously preventing recidivism in inmates and more effectively protecting Arizona communities and landscapes from the threat of wildfires.
“The program is there to help the inmates to have a trade,” Griffin said. “To gain experience, to be able to get a job when they get out. It’s on-the-job training, more or less.”
The bill began its life in the House Natural Resources Energy and Water Committee, where it was widely supported. A Senate version of the bill was subsequently introduced, approved by a 27-3 margin, and signed into law by Ducey in March as part of his larger Healthy Forest Initiative. In addition to bolstering joint programs between the Department of Forestry and Fire Management and other agencies, the bill also disbursed $23.8 million in grants to the forestry department and its partners.
“We at the DFFM certainly support this bill and appreciate Governor Ducey’s leadership with this Healthy Forest Initiative,” said Forestry Director David Tenney. “We believe there are several agencies and organizations out there who would be willing to partner with us.”
Of the agencies that have partnered with the department in its effort to limit fire damage across the state, the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry has been one of the most proactive. The department has supplied small numbers of inmates to handle both fire suppression and vegetation cleanup duties, producing promising results so far.
“Last year, we deployed 12 inmate crews of up to 22 inmates working in these programs,” Deputy Director Frank Strada said. “The overall program has been very successful, both for us and the [Emergency Operations Centers]. Inmates selected for this program are among the lowest risk offenders in our custody.”
Inmates who have taken part in the program have praised its reformative potential, and a few success stories have already materialized in the year since it was put into place. Krista Countryman served on the all-female fire crew at Perryville Prison, and managed to parlay her experience into a job at the forestry department. Prior to joining the Perryville crew, Countryman had battled drug addiction for years and landed in the correctional system on three separate occasions. She insists that the program can help other drug offenders achieve a similar turnaround.
“I had no home, no job, no car, no kind of life at all,” she said. “The fire crew changed that. This program helps people change their lives and I am just one example. The inmate fire crew program is the most valuable form of rehabilitation that the Arizona Department of Corrections has to offer.”
While the 720 new inmates who will be included into the program will have an opportunity to turn their lives around, forestry department spokeswoman Tiffany Davila says that they will not be involved in fire suppression. Instead, they will handle “fuel mitigation” duties, cleaning up potentially flammable vegetation, while the responsibility of fighting the fires will be delegated to inmates on existing crews.