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The Cameron Peak fire burns on Aug. 19. (Cameron Peak Fire Media photo)

Colorado inmate firefighters have been on the frontlines of nearly half a dozen recent wildfires,  including the most catastrophic inferno in state history, which sparked long before the start of what was once believed to be “wildfire season.” 

They work alongside the state’s seasonal wildland fire crews, but after their work is done, the inmates go back behind bars, exchanging their hard hats and Nomex yellow fire shirts for a Colorado Department of Corrections jumpsuit.

Despite a law signed last year designed to remove the legal barriers for State Wildland Inmate Fire Team members to get full-time firefighting jobs with the state after they are released from prison, none have been hired. None have applied either, according to Colorado’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control. 

State officials say this year could be the worst wildfire year on record, underlining the need for firefighters during a season that could stretch resources thin. The risk for wildfire is starting earlier and lasting longer. Fires are becoming more intense and more frequent.

Combating wildfire and helping trained firefighters find employment after they finish their sentences were the main goals of the law, said state Rep. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat who was one of the prime sponsors of the legislation.

“We intended not for this to have an immediate overnight effect, but to be a resource available to our wildland firefighting teams for many years to come,” Roberts said. “I think even one SWIFT crew member being able to go into a career and wildland firefighting post-incarceration would be a success.”

The law’s intention, Roberts said, wasn’t to guarantee that every SWIFT crew member could get a job on the state’s wildfire team, but to give them a chance at one by prohibiting DFPC from disqualifying an applicant solely due to their felony conviction. 

It could also help the state benefit from the investment made to train prisoners on how to fight wildfire, which is expensive, he said.

But the lack of results has some questioning the officials’ commitment to reducing recidivism among formerly incarcerated Coloradoans. 

Garry Briese, executive director of Colorado State Fire Chiefs, said he expected the state to have hired a former SWIFT crew member in the year since the bill was signed into law.

“We’re either committed to reducing recidivism, and all of the other good things that come with it, or we’re not,” Briese said. “So if agencies are hiring and doing what they usually do, it’s a very high likelihood that SWIFT graduates aren’t in that information flow or in that communication stream. So how are they going to find out?”

Ahead of what’s expected to be an extreme fire year, the state was able to fill most of its wildland firefighting positions. Eight vacancies, including six for ground-based firefighters and two managers for single-engine and large air tankers, were filled with temporary workers, data from the division shows. 

Fire agencies in Colorado and across the country are seeing a drop in the number of people applying to firefighting positions, said Vaughn Jones, DFPC’s wildland fire section chief. 

“We are starting to see a smaller pool of interested applicants and candidates for all fire positions, particularly in wildland fire,” Jones said. “It’s hard, demanding work, and there seems to be fewer and fewer people that are interested in doing that type of work.”

The long hours and high-intensity work environment — especially as fire seasons extend further into the year —are draining, Vaughn said. 

“What we’re seeing now with the longer fire seasons, the bigger fires, is we’re actually running into a burnout factor,” he said. State fire crews “just can’t kind of sustain that same kind of pace and work that amount of overtime on a year-round basis.” 

The division hopes to move away from the temporary, seasonal model, toward permanent positions for more stable resources to fight fires “at all times of the year” and give firefighters full benefits, he said. 

Members of the State Wildland Inmate Fire Team work the Kruger Rock fire southeast of Estes Park. The fire burned for about two weeks starting on Nov. 11, 2021. (CCI)

Hand crews that are positioned around the state consist of about seven to 10 people. Ideally, the division would like to build teams of 12 to 14 people, allowing for rotations so that firefighters can get a break or spend time with their family midsummer, Jones said.

Under the law signed May 2021, the Division of Fire Prevention and Control is required to increase awareness of wildland fire career opportunities for people who gained firefighting experience while incarcerated. 

But the state made no effort to publicize the program until recently when it sent a brochure to CDOC that included information about available firefighting positions with the state. The brochure came days before a July 1 deadline in the law that required DFPC to provide a description of wildland fire career opportunities, the minimum qualifications needed for the positions and how someone may acquire the minimum qualifications. 

A lot of the people coming out of the SWIFT program would have the training and experience necessary to work on the hand crews, Jones said. Others are qualified to work the state’s engines or join helitack crews, who are transported by helicopters to set up lines in remote terrain and assess the fire from above.

“They are a good, solid, reliable resource, almost without question,” said Jones, who has worked with SWIFT crew members on wildfires and prescribed burns for more than two decades.

CDOC will continue to work with the state to develop strategies for recruitment, spokeswoman Annie Skinner said. Some SWIFT crew members also learn about opportunities by interacting with other fire crews, she said. The SWIFT supervisor is in contact with agencies across the state and may also pass along word of potential jobs. 

“We are hopeful that former SWIFT crew members who may have been previously denied the opportunity to find a career in the service prior to SB21-012 can have the chance now to positively impact the state’s firefighting resources,” Skinner said in an email. 

Once released from prison, former SWIFT crew members could still face barriers that make it challenging to get hired by the state team, she said, explaining that state wildland firefighters are typically required to travel to neighboring states, which is sometimes prohibited under an inmate’s parole. 

Since the law was passed, 12 former SWIFT crew members have been released from prison, Skinner said. 

“We anticipate we will see the number of folks hired as inmates become more aware of the opportunities available to them upon release,” she said. CDOC also hired a former SWIFT member to work on their firefighting crew, which Skinner said she hopes will serve as an example for inmates looking to pursue a full-time career in firefighting. 

So far this year, SWIFT members were dispatched to the Marshall fire in Boulder County, fires in Lyons and Lake George in April, and the Plumtaw Fire in Pagosa Springs in May. They also do mitigation work across the state, partnering with the U.S. Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, county fire departments and homeowner associations, Skinner said. 

Earning about $40 a day, they receive the same training as the state’s seasonal wildland firefighters and have hands-on experience fighting some of the state’s largest and most catastrophic wildfires.

Since the start of the SWIFT program, more than 2,500 inmates have participated in the program. But fewer than 10 have been hired as full-time firefighters since being released, according to Briese with Colorado State Fire Chiefs.

“I want to see this program become at least, if not a major pipeline, at least a pipeline that brings qualified candidates to fire departments who need them,” he said. 

Tyler Lorentz, who joined SWIFT last February while incarcerated at Four Mile Correctional Facility in Cañon City, said he hoped to transform his experience on the team into a full-time gig once he is out on parole later this summer.

Lorentz worked as an auto mechanic before he was convicted of theft and sentenced to eight years in prison, but the experience on the SWIFT team has him considering a career change, he said last fall, while doing mitigation work in central Teller County alongside his fellow crew members.

“For me, it’s given me a good sense of self-worth. You get in trouble for doing something or making a mistake and it gets in your head. It can feel like you’re not worth something or people look at you differently,” Lorentz said. “When I get out and do this, it is like the opposite because a lot of times we’re out here and they don’t know we’re inmates or they don’t care and they just thank us for helping out and doing good, whether it is protecting people’s houses or just working on these projects in this open space.” 

Each crew member is required to take training courses and must remain physically fit, including being able to hike 3 miles while carrying a 45-pound pack in 45 minutes or less, he said. While on the scene of a fire, they work 16 hour shifts and for every day out on a project — fighting a fire or doing mitigation work — gets a day off his sentence, he said.

Lorentz said he planned to check the local Forest Service offices for firefighting opportunities after he was transferred to community corrections.

“Part of the (community corrections’) restrictions is that you have to be there every night. You can’t leave the county. So fire wouldn’t really work, unless I could find local work,” he said. “But as soon as I get parole and can travel again, I am going to try firefighting again.”

All available wildland positions through the state are posted online.

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,...