GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (AP) — When the Ward Gulch Fire struck north of Rifle and threatened homes, campgrounds and even a state prison in June, factors such as heavy winds and parched vegetation were on its side.
But in at least one respect, it picked a poor place to try to burn. The Rifle Correctional Center is home to the Juniper Valley wildland firefighters, who quickly responded to the blaze.
Working with aircraft and other firefighting resources in the ensuing hours and days, they helped contain a fire that had become personal for them, burning so close to the prison that it had gone on pre-evacuation notice.
"We went and saved the facility," Derek Lukehart, one of the prison firefighters, stated matter-of-factly about the role they played.
Later in the month they helped defend virtually their own backyard once again with the eruption of the Brush Creek Fire, which burned west of the Ward Gulch Fire and also consumed hundreds of acres before being contained.
The fires were close-to-home examples of the work the Rifle firefighters perform on fires across the state as part of the Colorado Department of Corrections' SWIFT (State Wildland Inmate Fire Team) program. The work helps inmates learn teamwork and a potential post-prison career, gain precious earned time, and give back to communities by performing an important role in a fire-prone state.
"I've worked with them on many a fire in Colorado and have nothing but good things to say about them," said Jeff Berino, who is deputy chief of Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue in Summit County and served as incident commander on the Ward Gulch Fire.
The SWIFT firefighters are Type II hand crews, a level below the elite Type 1 Hotshot crews, and Berino said he finds them to be on a par with if not better than contract Type II crews.
"It's their attitude. These guys want to be out there. They're willing to talk about their experiences and their desire to better themselves. They're there because they want to be, and many of them realize that this is a good chance for them."
Mark Flowers, Colorado's new director of prisons, also has heard Rifle's firefighters and other crews in the SWIFT program being compared favorably to other crews. He heaped praise on them during a brief visit with the Rifle group as it was thinning brush at the Garfield Creek State Wildlife Area south of New Castle in late June.
"You guys are true heroes," said Flowers, who added he'd like to see the SWIFT team expanded given the demand he's seen in the few months since moving from Virginia to Colorado.
"There's fires everywhere," he said.
Gearing up to get back to work after Flowers' visit, Lukehart and colleagues William Cussins and Absalom Pino agreed it was nice to be acknowledged for their efforts.
Lukehart said working on the crew has been a learning experience and an opportunity for inmates to serve others.
"I think it's time for everybody to grow up and give back to the community," he said.
Firing up his chain saw in the heat of a gnat-filled day up Garfield Creek, Terry Marzella called working on the steep terrain of the Brush Creek Fire "the best experience of my life." Such conditions might not appeal to some, but for inmates they beat a day confined to prison grounds.
"I'm 41 years old, sir. This is great," Marzella said as the 25-pound saw he'd hauled a mile and a half uphill to the work site began to whine. "It's hard work but it's sure worth it. We can take the experience out and build a career with it."
That's what Jason Gallob hopes to do. A former mortgage analyst serving time for forgery, he got interested in joining SWIFT while at the Skyline Correctional Center in Canon City. From there he watched last year's hugely destructive Waldo Canyon Fire burn as he was doing a running fitness test as part of qualifying for firefighting.
Seeing such devastation added to his desire to help others. Now in his second year with the program, he's a squad boss, signified by the red hardhat he wears.
"This program works. It changes your whole mindset," said Gallob, who plans to study fire science after leaving prison.
Offering hope to current program participants is the fact that entities from the Bureau of Land Management to the town of Vail have hired former participants for firefighting work. The state estimates that at least 30 participants statewide have gone on to do civilian fire or fuel-reduction work.
"We've been very pleased with the success of the program," said Jack Laughlin, who oversees it through DOC's Colorado Correctional Industries.
Gallob said the work has been gratifying in all sorts of ways, from hearing a Basalt homeowner thank firefighters for fuel reduction work that protected her home, to watching bighorn sheep use a trail they cut for the benefit of the sheep near Redstone. He's loved getting the chance to see beautiful parts of the state, and looks forward to returning to hike them sometime as a free man.
For Gallob, speeding up how soon that freedom might come is a chief appeal for participating in SWIFT. Firefighters get an additional day's credit for time served for every day of work on a fire or vegetation project, on top of the time they can get for good behavior. That earned time is capped at a statutory maximum percentage of their sentencing, but the firefighting lets them reach that cap and become eligible for parole or halfway housing sooner, Laughlin said.
Gallob is anxious to get reunited with his family, including a sister and nephews. He knows he let them down through his crime, but has been working to regain their respect through his work in firefighting.
"I found my identity in life. ... I mean, I was at rock bottom. Now for the first time in 10 years I enjoy looking in the mirror because there's nothing behind me," he said.
The SWIFT program — with the slogan, "We Build Opportunity" — was created by statute in 1998 and first had a team fighting fires during the heavy fire season of 2002. Firefighting crews now operate out of Rifle, Buena Vista and Cañon City. A 20-man crew that does just fuels and trail construction works out of Buena Vista.
Rifle also has had a second, 10-man crew that has focused on fuels and trails work but is fire-qualified, and that now has been expanded to a 20-man crew due to the high firefighting demand.
Laughlin said he gets about 200 to 300 applications a year to fill the 100 positions now available. Applicants must receive several approvals, including from their wardens, and be minimum-security, non-violent offenders who also aren't sex offenders, and pass certain fitness testing, among other requirements.
They also must waive their right to be paroled or placed in halfway housing for their first fire season, due to the investment the state makes in training them.
Laughlin said most Western states have some sort of inmate firefighting program. Colorado's is operated as a business enterprise that's not tax-supported. It charges $4,500 a day for a 20-person crew's work on a fire, and $1,600 a day for vegetation work.
Firefighters receive $1.80 for each day's work, along with 60 cents a day from the state for having a job, but also can share in a bonus when their team exceeds certain work amounts per month.
Laughlin said the program has saved taxpayers more than $4 million because the crews are less expensive than others. Since its inception SWIFT has responded to about 300 incidents, worked on fires 1,152 days and had more than 700 offenders participate.
A unarmed prison employee oversees each Rifle team from both a firefighting and security perspective. Chris Spitznogle, one of those crew bosses in Rifle, said the extensive screening and qualification requirements contribute to trust in firefighters who, after all, also work with chain saws, chain files and other implements of their jobs. Spitznogle never has had a crew member try to escape, although some have been kicked off the crew for behavioral violations.
Safety seems a bigger concern than security out in the field, a concern reinforced with the recent deaths of 19 firefighters in Arizona. Laughlin said the Colorado fire crews all stopped to review their policies and procedures after that tragedy.
Noting that the SWIFT program is voluntary, Laughlin said inmates entering it are required to acknowledge the risks involved.
"It is real, and we try to stress to these guys this isn't a joke, this isn't a show-up-and-get-paid kind of job, this is something they've got to be all in on," he said.
Laughlin said SWIFT never had a serious incident or injury until a falling tree injured a crew member on a non-fire assignment this summer. That crew member hopes to return to work by summer's end.
The participants are trained like other wildland firefighters. Rifle crew members also have visited Storm King Mountain, outside Glenwood Springs, where 14 firefighters died in 1994, in part to reinforce the message of safety.
Gallob said the Arizona deaths "kind of hit home" for some of his crew. Both they, and he as their immediate supervisor, are looking to learn from it and focus even more on safety. He also reflected on how people react to the loss of firefighters in incidents like the one in Arizona.
"It's a tragedy, and even though we're inmates it's a reminder that we are heroes in the eyes of the general public," he said.