Offender crews provide needed fire support
First-year offender crews train on digging a proper fire line in preparation for fire season this year.
In the upcoming fire season, minimum security offenders from the Airway Heights Corrections Center will be working with Department of Natural Resources crews, fighting fires in the region.
Part of the offenders’ job includes digging fire lines to prevent a blaze from advancing further.
Arcadia district manager for the DNR’s Northeast region Andrew Stenbeck said fire line crews dig down to reach mineral soil, where there are no organic compounds. That way, the fire can be fully contained instead of smoldering across a fresh fire line, burning right over it.
“One of the key objectives today is teaching our new recruits and refreshing those from last season that a good fire line has appropriate width and it’s down to mineral soil and to nothing that can burn ,” he said.
Offenders from the corrections center are available seven days a week, and DNR crews seeing them firsthand know how invaluable their help can be.
“They provide an essential workforce to our fire suppression in the local area and the Northeast region,” Stenbeck said. “They will work throughout the state at times.”
Each fire crew has 10 offenders working a line, with approximately 60 offenders in the program. Offenders receive 62 cents per hour for their efforts, and are within four years away from their release date.
Some of the offenders prefer to work in the DNR crews instead of taking part in the workforce training program, due to its ability to give back to the area.
“Offenders do like that it gives them an opportunity to give back to the community,” administrative program manager for the Department of Corrections, Risa Klemme, said.
Stenbeck said there is a notable difference between returning and first-year crews. After watching returning crews work, there is an obvious rhythm that can only be developed through time spent working together.
Sean Oie is entering his third year in the program, and is the longest-tenured employee involved since DNR started the program, fighting 44 fires along the way. He’s even looking at joining a company that fights fires across the Northwest once his time at Airway Heights is finished, putting the skills he’s learned while working with DNR crews to the test.
Crews first go through an endurance test to enter the program, and then are instructed on how to properly use tools while on the job, whether it’s an axe, chainsaw or other items. Proper handling and supervision help the training process for some of the newer team members.
“After a while, you learn to let the tool do the work,” Oie said.
While the first year was something of a challenge, each returning year has become easier, allowing crews like Oie’s to develop that natural rhythm that Stenbeck spoke of.
“You just build up to it, the endurance,” he said. “We’ve got some really excellent staff.”
Oie recalls a fire fought in Omak three years ago where the crew was thanked by an elderly resident. That response is what brings him back each year.
“You can’t beat a feeling like that,” he said.
Fire season was originally forecasted to be average in 2013, but precipitation levels are already lower than average. Stenbeck said some areas are already two weeks ahead of estimated fuel models due to decreased rainfall.
“Our live fuel moistures are showing similar patterns,” he said.
Cooperation between county departments and local crews has improved over the years, and has helped preparedness levels across the board.
“We work hard to develop an efficient, rapid response to fires,” Stenbeck said. “In cooperation with our fire district partners, we probably have as good a firefighting capabilities that we’ve had in Spokane County.”
James Eik can be reached at email@example.com.