GLENDALE, Ore. — When more than a thousand firefighters are on the scene of a 28,000 acre fire, costs can quickly add up. One way those costs come down is when the state doesn’t have to hire the private sector.
There are some 1,600 firefighters going up against the Douglas Complex, and a handful of them learned their skills while incarcerated.
Thursday morning, dozens of firefighters lined up to get a big breakfast, going into another big day on the fire lines. The hot plates are being served up, by prison inmates.
“They like to help the community, the best they can, it gives them something to look forward to when they do get out, they get engaged with what’s going on,” explained Lt. Lee Jones of the South Fork Forest Camp, Dept. of Corrections.
It’s not only food being passed from their hands to the fire fighters…it’s hoses for the fight and Gatorade for the fighters. Marked by a red tag around their pants, 100 of the 150 inmates are actually fighting the fire, helping fire crews with suppression.
“They train the inmates outside of the facility, they go through all the needed training to be prepared to fight the wildland fires, and that’s what we call suppression crews,” said Lt. Jones.
South Fork Forest Camp is specifically designed to train inmates to fight fires through a partnership with the Oregon Department of Forestry. It’s a partnership that gives inmates a chance at redemption. Officials say a few of the men who once stayed in the green prison tents are now on the other side of the security line, fighting as civilians.
Creating new meaning to baptism by fire.
The program started after the Tillimook Burn Fires, it has been in place for decades. There are five minimum security prisons in Oregon that train inmates to become firefighters. They must meet criteria, including not having any murder, sexual assault or arson charges on their record.