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Anatomy of a Department of Corrections wildfire base camp

Special to the Forks Forum

Anticipating the summer season in our Western Washington temperate climate is typically about schools being let out, sunshine, warm weather, outdoor projects and vacations. In Eastern Washington thoughts turn similarly however, harvest is in full swing and as the sun beats down, things in nature heat up. Going a couple-three months without measurable precipitation on either side of the mountains usually means that woody debris; brush and trees becomes a “fuel load” for wildfire, which spreads with the prevailing winds. Lightning crackles strikes and illuminates the ridge lines. 

I spent four days in a couple of fire camps last week and made my way into the wildfire areas to observe for myself the devastating effects of wildfire; its “hot spots” (active fire), billowing smoke  brush and debris erupting in flames with the next puff of wind. Flames shooting up draws and canyons and feeding as it goes. Blackened hillsides and burnt timber; the dirt blackened. My eyes stung constantly from the dry, dusty conditions and smoky haze, and I coughed at every turn of the wind. Ashes blew off my vehicle.  

I was dressed out in “Nomex” (fire retardant clothing), with appropriate personal protection equipment. A “fire shelter” (aluminized tent that reflects radiant heat and provides some breathable air), completed my gear. My badge hung on its lanyard. I was approached by a local fellow who was watching the fire move towards many inhabited areas. He asked if I was “management” (for the fire). He wanted answers and resources like “tankers and helicopters”, which scoops up water out of lakes and rivers and transports and delivers thousands of gallons of water and or fire retardant liquid/powder. 

There are multiple jurisdictions, which wildfire does not discriminate against. The fire doesn’t have boundaries related to national park, state, municipal, private, or tribal jurisdictions, each of which has its own protocols for response; none of which moves quickly enough for the concerned land owner who was hoping I could make some decisions around dedicating immediate resources to battle fires with; a no-brainer for him. 

Wildfire Base Camp – “Incident Command” is a command structured staging and management system. It is a beehive of activity, equipment and humanity. Tents dot the landscape. Maps hung in the command post target huge tracts of land and hundreds of fires; most identified; some yet to be pinpointed, and some in need of additional firefighters and equipment.

In the midst of this incident command site is a secured prison base camp. An extension of a state prison that is established to provide safety, security, shelter and services to trained firefighters and food-service workers who happen to be convicted felons. Prison security staff provides surveillance and assures that the offenders are accounted for, that their behavior is appropriate and the public is safe. 

Offender firefighters from Airway Heights, Cedar Creek, Larch, Naselle (Youth Camp) and Olympic Corrections Centers are trained by Department of Natural Resources (DNR) staff to work side-by-side with “hot shot crews” (intensively trained fire crews), from around the country, and to establish “containment” (wildfire suppression strategy), on controlled “fire lines” (fire trail dug up to serve as a burn boundary), and to “mop up” (extinguish burning materials, reduce smoke, and make the fire safe), once that is achieved. Other offenders work in base camp and cook thousands of daily meals out of mobile kitchens; others work to keep the camp clean and sanitary. It’s not without its moments:

As Cedar Creek and Olympic Corrections Center DNR supervisors and DOC security staff directed offenders in setting up the base camp situated in the Ellensburg Fair Grounds near the Table Top Mountain Complex Fires, they were subjected to a contraband drop. A black truck rolled up and tossed a large garbage sack over the enclosure. Several offenders made off with tobacco, a small amount of beer, (which are contraband in prison), and some food. Staff immediately responded by accounting for all offenders and began systematic searches of offenders, tents, and their property and swept the grounds. Several offenders were found in possession of contraband and they were expeditiously transported to Kittitas County Jail.

At another base camp, which is sited at the Confluence State Park, adjacent to the Wenatchee River Complex Fires, staff and offenders were awakened in the middle of the night by automatic sprinklers that popped up from the ground to provide the timed watering of the grassy areas their tents and equipment now occupied. “Stuff happens”.

Securing a base camp far from the parent institution is no easy task. Perimeters, line of sight, routes of travel, and routines such as monitoring movement, searches, escorts, counts and inspections are established. Food, medical, supplies, equipment and laundry are services that have to be coordinated and provided. Often times, base camps are established in city parks, fairgrounds, school property or are isolated in a canyon or have to be ferried over across open water. Some are adjacent to highways, casinos and residential areas. 

They work long hours and are sooty, grime-streaked and ashy, they are dog tired. They are no different in this capacity than any civilian working a hot shot crew. They trudge back into base camp, get a hot meal, a shower, if available, and drop off into their cots to be awakened short hours later and do it all again.

These offenders are paid firefighters. They are the best of the best that the prison system has to offer and most of these firefighters have earned their way to prison camps, lower custody designations and they meet stringent criteria in order to participate on work crews outside the secured confines of a prison. But while their civilian counterparts are paid accordingly, offender firefighters have to earn a gratuity at the rate of 62 cents an hour, based on hours worked, which is variably subjected up to 75% in deductions to pay for the cost of their incarceration, legal financial obligations, child support and other miscellaneous expenses. But, “it ain’t about the money” for these firefighters; it is about the opportunity to give something back to society. 

Offender firefighters have been, over time, credited by the communities and the folks managing these incidents as having saved lives, property and the environment. Hot shot crews admire and look forward to working elbow to elbow with the hard charging and dedicated offender crews. At the recent Taylor Bridge Fire at Cle Elum, a crew from Olympic Corrections Center, supervised and directed by a DNR forest crew supervisor, worked at protecting a residence and its family from the huge wildfire spreading throughout the area. The resident related the following message: 

“Dear Superintendent John Aldana, Olympic Corrections Center: With great gratitude, I ask that you forward this to the heroes in the trenches of the Taylor Bridge firefight. Last month, firefighters saved my structures and favorite grove of trees during the Taylor Bridge fire. They cut firebreaks through very rocky land, shoveled sand, removed fuels, and must have braved smoke, hot temperatures, long hours, and possibly windswept fire hazards. Out of over 1000 firefighters, I realize it will be difficult to identify who exactly were the heroes on my property.  It’s irrelevant since all the Taylor Bridge firefighters were heroes to me and my neighbors in the Swauk and Horse Canyon during that tragedy. Your efforts are a great example of how well government works to preserve the common good and touch lives on an individual level.  As the firefighting season continues vigorously, your safety is in my thoughts. Please share my many thanks to all of those firefighters in your charge. I will forever remember the great gift that preserved much of this beautiful place.”

 Sincerely, Jake Carton, Raptor Ridge Road off Bettas Road (aka Teanaway Heights)

“To whom it may concern: I am very grateful to the individuals in your program who worked hard to protect my cabin from the Taylor Bridge Fire. I met a couple of these young men on Emerick Road outside of Cle Elum. I hope you will convey to all the individuals who worked on this fire my appreciation. Their work has great value to the community and they should take pride in their contributions. I will send some photos for you to use at your discretion in the near future.”

Sincerely, Gretchen Chambers

There have been countless stories like those told above. On occasion, you hear about a former offender who is now a civilian firefighter and who has had a successful reentry to the community. For these moments in time, offenders feel normalized; albeit in the midst of a crisis situation and under adverse conditions.  

On my last night at base camp, I listened intently to the Incident Commander as he briefed Gov. Gregoire on the situation at the Wenatchee River Complex. The Governor had declared a state of emergency. Afterwards, I had the opportunity to meet with the Governor and as we spoke she shook my hand and remarked as to the value our offender crews bring to our state’s emergency response efforts. The camaraderie in base camp is amazing; it’s patriotic and serves a higher purpose. The Governor validated this by her very presence, the support she pledged and words of encouragement. It was both evocative and thrilling to be a small part of this tremendous effort.

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