TELLER COUNTY, Colo. (KRDO) -- Devastating wildfires across the state last year and this year have led officials to seek help from a somewhat underutilized source: prison inmates.
The state is allocating $17 million in federal stimulus funds over the next three years to increase the size of the State Wildland Inmate Fire Team (SWIFT), which uses low-risk inmates from several prisons including the Four Mile Correctional Center in Cañon City.
Currently, 95 inmates are members of SWIFT but the additional funding would add 160 inmates to the team.
The money also includes pay raises for crew members to fight wildfires, and work on a variety of mitigation projects to prevent fires and improve wildlife habitat in El Paso, Teller and Park counties.
One of the inmates, Kevin Payton, is serving an 11-year sentence for financial crimes related to his drug habit.
"But I should get out on parole next year and go back home," he said. "The pay increase will help me get started after I'm released. I've saved $5,000 and sent half of it to my mother. She's taking care of my six-year-old son."
On Tuesday, officials with the Department of Natural Resources, Department of Corrections and Department of Parks & Wildlife joined SWIFT crews in announcing the project at the Dome Rock State Wildlife Area, near Florissant in western Teller County.
The effort, called the Colorado Strategic Wildfire Action Program, formed last year after a series of major wildfires in the state.
Participating in mitigation and forest health work is the Colorado Youth Corps Association, giving teens and young adults an opportunity to help.
Earlier this year, state lawmakers passed legislation to expand the SWIFT program and help crew members find jobs in the wildland/wildfire industry after their release from prison.
Since SWIFT began in 2002, more than 50 inmates have found jobs in the industry; the hope is that the new program will significantly increase that number.
Cody Wigner, of Colorado Parks & Wildlife, says the new collaboration will make a big difference because manpower and resources are always limited.
“Mitigation, if we did this as an agency in our local area here, it would take years," he said. "With the equipment and personnel we have and the other job duties, it would take a long time to get this project done.”