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Washington state inmates serve as wildland firefighters through pioneering program

Washington state's prison system operates the a program that trains inmates to become skilled firefighters. The inmates receive extensive training to combat forest fires.

The inmates of Washington state's prison system tramp through the forest, their yellow uniforms and helmets bright against the brown branches and green leaves.

They are Arcadia 20, or ARC 20, an elite group of firefighters based in Spokane who have been recruited from existing firefighting prison camps.

The aim? Teach the inmates the skills needed to help prevent forest fires - and in the process, give them an opportunity to start on a path to a new career.

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Recruited by the state's Department of Natural Resources and Department of Corrections, the program seeks to provide the dozen or so inmates with enough training to prepare them for jobs as civilian firefighters once they have completed their sentences.

"I do believe one thing for sure, that people deserve a second chance," said Kenyatta Bridges, 34, who joined the ARC 20 team for training in the middle of last year while serving a 10-year sentence for manslaughter in a 2014 gang-affiliated shooting in Pasco, Washington.

Bridges started a job in a civilian fire crew on June 3, following his release.

Reuters was granted exclusive access to ARC 20 over three months, including a visit last August to the Tonasket Rodeo Grounds, a rural community in northeast Washington near the Canadian border. Bridges and the ARC 20 crew were setting up their tents after a day of helping contain a fire.

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Crew members learn how to conduct prescribed burns, how to handle dangerous equipment, and how to ensure fires that have been contained stay that way. And when necessary, they are on the front lines of a fire, digging lines to help reduce the chance a fire will continue to spread.

"Team work, communications skills, an accountability for one's actions and others as it relates to duties and providing for safety" are an integral part of their mindset, according to ARC 20 management.

"The fellas that I've worked shoulder to shoulder with, they're amazing," Bridges said. "We all made bad decisions in our life. Some of us got caught, some of us didn't. But we learn from our mistakes."

While states across the American West have inmate firefighting crews, Washington's ARC 20 program is the only one of its kind in the U.S., recruiting incarcerated individuals from full confinement into a reentry center where they continue to build skills in firefighting and prepare for life after release.  

They also earn more. Inmates in Washington state's regular prison firefighting camps, who number around 230, are paid up to $1.50 per hour, based on experience, for their daily duties. When dispatched to an active fire zone, they are paid the state's minimum wage of $16.28 per hour plus overtime.

Elite crew members who have joined the ARC 20 team are paid a base salary of up to $3,796 per month with potential overtime pay on fire assignments. This year-round crew has a maximum of 20 team members.

It had 13 people on the team during its first full year in 2023 and expects to have 12 as Washington state's fire season ramps up at the end of June.

The Pacific Northwest is struggling with the effects of climate change, with higher-than-normal chances of wildfires and a longer season this year, according to meteorologists at the Department of Natural Resources, the state agency charged with wildfire prevention and management.

According to DNR officials who manage both fully incarcerated camp crews and the ARC 20 team, a high-earning member of the camp crew received approximately $11,000 in 2023, whereas an ARC 20 crew member earned up to $60,000.

The ARC 20 team is trained to join "hand crews" — teams of 18 to 25 firefighters who work and camp near the front lines of active wildfires, often hiking long distances and carrying their own gear to reach remote areas. They also conduct prescribed burns and chainsaw trees to the ground as part of the state's fire mitigation and forest management efforts.

ARC 20's crew superintendent Ben Hood is on the team that selects participants.

"We call it getting bit with the fire bug... Once you get bit with it, you're hooked in," said Hood. "It becomes part of, kind of who you are, becomes more than just a job. It kind of becomes a lifestyle."

When the team isn't traveling the state fighting fires, they are housed at Brownstone Reentry Center, a minimum security facility in downtown Spokane. Residents participate in work or training programs and are granted additional freedoms like wearing normal clothes or owning a cellphone.

ARC 20 crew members are paid higher wages than some staff in the state's correctional system, including the facility where they live, according to Brownstone's manager.

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Reuters visited another crew of fully incarcerated individuals in September at a Department of Natural Resources facility at Cedar Creek Corrections Center, southwest of the state's capital city, Olympia.

They had just returned from a weeks-long assignment running a mobile kitchen for almost 1,000 wildland firefighters per day, who were fighting two of the 2023 season's biggest fires in the state.

Timothy Bullock, 32, an electrician jailed for second-degree assault stemming from a domestic dispute, said he has changed his life goals and wants to become a wildland firefighter.

"I used to drink quite a bit... it was a terrible mistake on my part that affected other people, people I cared about. So it's hard dealing with that," said Bullock, acknowledging a prison sentence may have been needed for him to change his path. "I just know that I'm never going to make those types of mistakes ever again."

Bullock has been a standout member of the Cedar Creek Corrections Center camp crew, according to his bosses at DNR. He has submitted his application for ARC 20 and is being considered for a spot in late 2024.

"I'm getting real close to getting out. It's kind of working out for the better, you know, to get back on my feet and then have an opportunity when I get out," said Bullock.

Washington's model could be a 'stepping stone' for state agencies across the U.S., according to transition crew liaison Roy Hardin, who helped form the crew with Hood.

"If a person is employed, has a really good job right when they get out of prison, they're not homeless, they're probably not going to come back," said Hardin. He said four crew members from ARC 20 have gone on to take jobs as members of the state firefighting agency – one engine leader and three engine crew members.

Kenyatta Bridges is one of those crew members.

On June 3, he started fighting fires with DNR's Arcadia Engine 7405 near Spokane, in one of the most wildfire prone areas of Washington state.

"He's hard working. He's motivated," said superintendent Hood, who recruited Bridges. "He's becoming one of those leaders. He's good with the chainsaw. He doesn't know how to quit working; he's physically capable of the job. He's what you want in a firefighter."

Bridges is elated for this new chapter of his life. Since his release from Brownstone he has been living in transitional housing with other formerly incarcerated individuals in Spokane, and on May 20 his partner gave birth to their son.

"I feel like I couldn't ask for nothing better," Bridges said, discussing his life post-release. "To have everything so quickly, it feels like every gear is rotating and spinning just on point."

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