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A plane drops retardant on the Muddy Slide fire reported Sunday, June 20, in the Routt National Forest about 30 miles south of Steamboat Springs in Routt County. Pre-evacuation notices were sent out to residents in the area of Routt County Road 16. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

For $12 a day, Colorado prison inmates trained to fight wildfires stand alongside the state’s seasonal fire crews, battling some of the state’s most devastating wildfires. 

Through a Colorado Department of Corrections program, members of the State Wildland Inmate Fire Team receive the same training as the state’s seasonal fire crews and have hands-on experience fighting fires when they’re needed. The team was dispatched to the Cameron Peak fire last fall, which scorched more than 208,000 acres, and the Waldo Canyon fire in 2012, which killed two people.

It’s a job that is physically demanding and risky. And, until this year, it likely wouldn’t have led to a career fighting fires after they finished their sentence, thanks to stigma and discrimination against convicted felons. 

Since its launch in 2002, more than 2,500 inmates have participated in the State Wildland Inmate Fire Team, or SWIFT, according to the Department of Corrections.

But fewer than 10 have been successful in getting jobs as full-time firefighters after they have finished their sentence, said Garry Briese, executive director of Colorado State Fire Chiefs.

“That’s in the entire history of the program,” Briese said. “It’s a pretty dismal job situation for SWIFT graduates coming out.”

A new law signed by Gov. Jared Polis is intended to make it easier for former prison inmates who worked on fire crews to get jobs in the industry after they’ve served their time.

The Colorado Department of Corrections has three fire crews of about 20 inmates each, but when those offenders leave prison, their criminal backgrounds have prevented them from getting jobs in the firefighting industry. 

Offenders chosen for the wildland firefighter training program are “model inmates” who have good reputations and have expressed remorse for their crimes, said Aaron Greco, a lobbyist for the Department of Corrections who testified in support of the legislation this year. The jobs are among the most coveted in the prison employment program, he said, and the fire crews get to travel across the state to fight fires. 

The new law says that people with felony convictions are eligible to work as wildland firefighters in the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control, and that the division is encouraged to hire former prison inmates who have worked on fire crews. 

“This is one of the most exciting and cool bills I think that I’ve done in my time at the Capitol,” said state Rep. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat who was one of the prime sponsors of the legislation.

A Chinook helicopter flies toward the Muddy Slide fire reported Sunday, June 20, in the Routt National Forest about 30 miles south of Steamboat Springs. The fire burned about 100 acres of timber, and additional firefighters were requested to come help with the blaze. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The new legislation is a “great first step” that will bring opportunity to SWIFT graduates after they finish their sentence and allow them to “get their life back on track,” said Briese, with the State Fire Chiefs.

People in the program have told Briese they wanted firefighting jobs after prison, but have little hope in their chances of doing so, he said. 

While the program helps boost morale and provide structure for those incarcerated, it also lowers recidivism rates by helping prisoners find jobs once they are released and leave prison with some money in their pockets, said Dean Williams, executive director of Colorado Department of Corrections. 

Inmates who leave prison without jobs, without a home and no social connections are more likely to return to prison, Williams said.

The legislation also requires the state’s division of fire prevention and control to start a peer mentor program for those hired by the agency after leaving prison so that they can develop professional skills.

“It doesn’t solve all of our recidivism problems but it’s important that we continue to take one more bite of the apple of providing work opportunities for people out of prison,” he said.

A separate bill, which was signed by Gov. Jared Polis last week, allows for the State inmates Wildland Fire Team to nearly quadruple in size — growing to about 125 people — and expand its focus on forest restoration and fire mitigation efforts. 

It will also allow firefighters in the program to earn more money: $50 for each day they are fighting fires and possibly more for supervisor positions, Williams said. 

“We’re going to pay a better wage, attract more people behind the walls to do the work,” Williams said. “And it provides a meaningful opportunity to give back to the community. It is a high public service.”

Barriers may still exist for graduates of the program looking for jobs at local fire departments, Briese said, adding that the new legislation removes some hiring obstacles for state agencies but doesn’t affect local jurisdictions’ hiring decisions.

“It is a great first step, but it is not the end,” he said. “It cannot be the end.” 

Williams said he hopes the new bill helps reduce the stigma surrounding hiring those who have served time. 

“I hope communities will view them as very reliable, safe individuals,” he said, “because they have proven themselves to be such.”

The devastation from the East Troublesome Fire in the Green Mountain area is visible at almost every turn, pictured June 17, 2021., near Estes Park. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

Firefighter jobs in Colorado are competitive, which poses another challenge for graduates of the program, Briese said. 

“There’s rarely a shortage of people applying for firefighter jobs when they do become open,” Briese said. “So it’s like: well if we have all of these people without felonies, why should we bend over backwards to make it easier for people with felonies?”

At the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Services Unit, which includes the county’s fire program, Sgt. Kevin Johnston said firefighters typically must pass a background check to get hired. This year, he feels good about how many firefighters are available, but it’s hard to predict how many firefighters the department will need as the season is just getting started. 

The county has 50 on-call wildland firefighters, people who have regular jobs but have gone through firefighter training and respond to last-minute text messages to help with a fire. They get paid only when they work. Larimer County also has a six-member team on staff that responds to fires on private, public and federal lands.

The on-call team is larger than in previous years, thanks to a busy 2020 fire season that rallied interest in firefighting, Johnson said. The department doesn’t want to hire more firefighters than necessary but it seems more are needed each year as fire season has stretched longer and gotten more intense in Colorado.

“When I first started, there was a fire season. It went from June to October,” said Johnston, who has worked in the industry for 26 years. “Now the fire season is kinda year round.” 

Also, fire season used to begin in Arizona and New Mexico in May, then shift west toward Colorado. “What we are seeing in the last couple of years is fires impacting the whole western part of the country at the same time,” he said. “We can get stretched thin.” 

Larimer County also sends firefighters, including those who are on call, on temporary, two-week fire crews working across the country. Four firefighters from the county are now in South Dakota, Johnston said. 

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...

Olivia Prentzel covers breaking news and a wide range of other important issues impacting Coloradans for The Colorado Sun, where she has been a staff writer since 2021. At The Sun, she has covered wildfires, criminal justice, the environment,...