Fire Camps Get Unexpected Support from Prison Inmates

A program through the state prison system allows low-level offenders to gain skills by working to support firefighters on the front lines of Southern Oregon wildfires.

Posted: Jul. 31, 2018 6:32 PM
Updated: Aug. 1, 2018 9:08 AM

ROGUE VALLEY, Ore. — When you think of people working on the fire line or preparing meals, you don’t often picture inmates doing those tasks. However, for certain low-level offenders around the state, the opportunity to work directly with firefighters is giving them a second chance at gaining real world experience and skills.

Skylar, one of the 80 inmates currently working at the fire camp says, “So right now I’m a kitchen support and I’m cooking for all the firefighters. I think just in general from the ground support, to the kitchen, to the guys that are on the ground crew, just seeing everyone come together to get the job done is just awesome and I’m so grateful to be a part of it.”

Before the inmates even step on the grounds of a fire camp they must meet certain requirements like having a GED. If they are accepted, the inmates will go through a rigorous training process where they will learn skills like firefighting, CPR and food safety. The inmates must also gain clearance in order to spend the night and work at the camp.

“There’s definitely some things that I’ve picked up on. Learning to work in difficult situations like with the heat, and I learned to fight fires, learning to do reforestation. All these things are just adding to my toolbox,” said Skylar.

While this program allows the men to work on gaining skills that will help them find a job, they also have an opportunity to grow personally. Charles, a Salem-based inmate says this is a way for them to try and make amends for some of their past actions.

“You know some of us might not have done so much to help on the streets, but now that we’re here it’s a good way for us to give back. You know, it’s something where we can pay it forward a little bit and it feels good. At the end of the day it feels good, it really does,” said Charles.

Officer M. Breshears is an advocate for the program and is proud of how the men have flourished during their time at the camp. She says the program allows the men to be treated as human beings and workers instead of inmates. The men are also able to build confidence and get more acclimated with the public before their release by interacting many different people all day.

“I think this is an awesome program for any of them who have the ability and the want, because you’ve got to have the want and the love for it because this is tough work, and these guys have not let us down,” said Officer Breshears.

The inmates stationed at the fire camp typically work for 14-day stints, but their stay can be extended up to 21 days if there is a fire emergency in the area. Officer Breshears hopes that this program will continue to grow and says it’s beneficial for inmates to successfully transition from being incarcerated to being free and finding employment.

Many of the men working at the camp say they are excited about their futures and some have even been given employment offers and references upon their release.

“It makes me know I have a chance," said Skylar. "That my past, you know my mistakes and my past doesn’t define who I am today and you know moving forward I do have a good future.”

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