Fighting wildfires anywhere is tough, important, dangerous work. But when those fires are closer to home, there’s a little extra incentive and effort that goes into cutting fire breaks, making sure tree roots are out and the fire doesn’t burn down someone’s home.
That’s what members of the Juniper Valley fire crew from the Rifle Correctional Center have found out this summer. Two wildfires burned near the prison, by Rifle Gap Reservoir, and a third flared up south of Rifle and the Colorado River. They helped control all three.
Then just last week, they were among fire crews from across the West that contained the 390-acre Red Canyon Fire, southeast of Glenwood Springs, on Friday, Aug. 16.
Twenty specially trained inmates worked from dawn till dark every day and pitched their tents alongside other crews at the Carbondale Middle School base camp each night.
Robert Chambers, 39, has served almost five years of a 12-year sentence and is one of two squad leaders of the Rifle crew. He was a wildland firefighter in California before ending up on the wrong side of the law in Colorado. This is his second year with the Juniper Valley crew. He said working locally is different than fighting a fire in another part of the state.
“You have those local resources that are also there that you see all the time,” he explained. “You want to put on a good show for them and do an excellent job.”
Absalom Pino, 32, from Cheyenne, Wyo., arrived at the Rifle prison last November to serve a four-year sentence for burglary. It was his first arrest, and this summer is his first season as team leader for the Rifle fire crew. Pino played team sports in school but said leading a team on a fire is different.
“In sports, it’s to win and here it’s to serve and to watch out for my teammates’ lives,” he said. “It’s life or death out there.”
The Rifle Juniper Valley crew is one of three State Wildland Inmate Fire Teams under the direction of Colorado Correctional Industries. The other two teams are based at the Four Mile Correctional Center in Cañon City and the Buena Vista Correctional Center. The teams have been fighting wildfires and working on trails and other woods-based programs throughout Colorado for 13 years.
Offenders commit to at least one wildfire season and agree to waive any opportunity for parole that comes up during that season.
Division Manager Jack McLaughlin said there is a significant amount of time spent on training.
“We can’t afford to have a guy on for a few months and then go home,” he said.
Crew members earn time off their sentences and $6 a day plus incentives based on skill level and other bonuses. McLaughlin said none of the money comes from taxpayers. Colorado Correctional Industries generates $60 million a year from its own businesses, he said, which include website design, a water buffalo dairy, office furniture manufacturing, a dog training program, and the Wild Horse Inmate Program in Cañon City.
The program is “reputation-based,” added McLaughlin, and expectations for the crews run high.
“We try to create an environment where there’s lots to lose,” he explained. “We use positive peer pressure.”
That means if one person steps out of line, everybody’s incentive pay is docked and it’s a black eye for the whole program. Each crew member is chosen for his potential and heavily screened.
“The program is dependent on each offender buying in,” added McLaughlin. “The staff is trained, and there is strict crew accountability.”
Chambers said, for the most part, other crews work well with inmate crews.
“We’re all brothers out there,” he explained. “We’re accomplishing one mission, and we’re all working together to accomplish that one mission.”
Pino said fighting wildfires has made him a better man.
“It makes me feel good in my heart to help out the communities, to save lives, to save land,” he added. “And it makes me feel good when my kids tell me I’m a firefighter [instead of] a prisoner.”
“In sports, it’s to win and here it’s to serve and to watch out for my teammates’ lives. It’s life or death out there.”