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Colorado to rely more on prison inmates for fighting, preventing wildfires

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.

KRDO

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.

KRDO

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."

KRDO

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.

KRDO

The effort, called the Colorado Strategic Wildfire Action Program, formed last year after a series of major wildfires in the state.

KRDO

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.

KRDO

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.

KRDO

“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.”

Scott Harrison

Scott is a reporter for KRDO. Learn more about Scott here.

Comments

2 Comments

  1. I’m glad they’re putting the less bad ones to work, but there’s plenty of law abiding and hard working people who’ve applied for fire prevention job postings that have been open for a long time. And they can’t even get an interview from usajobs hr. I guess crime does pay.

  2. I really feel the ignorance. I am glad they are putting the less bad ones to work? Wow I can see you are the high and mighty. These are Wild land firefighters. You know nothing of them. They work 12 hour shifts, in heat, rain, and snow for less than 5.00 dollars an hour. They sleep in tents and sleeping bags with no heat in the winter.
    They risk their lives on the front line battling fires, such as Kruger where they just were. To save your lives, houses, and land. They climbed steep very dangerous mountains and carried water on ” their backs.’
    They don’t get paid what fire fighters get paid.
    They aren’t taking any ones jobs away.
    You go out and do what they are doing and then talk.

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