Infrastructure & Environment

Several States Now Using Prisoners to Fight Fires

November 27, 2013

The men cluster in a tight pack, identities obscured by fire-resistant Nomex clothes, each one anonymous except for the color of his helmet: red for corrections officers, blue and yellow for inmates.

When the air was hot and the woods were parched last summer, the peak of the wildfire season in the West, these trained wilderness firefighters fought 13 forest fires in Arizona, including the one in June that half-destroyed the nearby village of Yarnell and killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite team. On a crisp morning this fall, they were using chain saws and pulaskis — a firefighting tool that combines an ax and an adz — to chop overgrown bushes in a private development here, offering a measure of fire prevention for houses built in the wild.

Their home base is the Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis, but when asked where they are from, the reply is simply “Buckeye,” the name of the town where the prison is located. If there are other questions, they call it a “gated community” and leave it at that.

“That we’re inmates is the last thing on anybody’s mind,” said John Chleboun, 33, who has been serving time for burglary at the Lewis complex and is entering his second year with the crew.

As federal agencies have cut costs during the budget standoffs in Washington, further decreasing the size of a firefighting work force that has already been reduced by 40 percent since the 1980s, the burden of fighting wildfires has been shifted to states and local jurisdictions, even as they struggle under the weight of a sluggish economy. Prison crews, cheap and dependable, have emerged as a solution as wildfires burn bigger, hotter and longer each year and take up a growing portion of the United States Forest Service budget. (In 2012 alone, federal agencies spent $1.9 billion on wildfire suppression, just shy of the record, set in 2006.)

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