Following the 2000 Fire Season, CCi began forming a wildland fire team to provide hand crew support and assistance on wildland fires within Colorado. CCi operates the State Wildland Inmate Fire Team (SWIFT) crews, housed at various correctional facilities in Colorado. Currently, the base locations are at the Four Mile Correctional Center in Canon City, the Rifle Correctional Center in Rifle and the Buena Vista Correctional Center in Buena Vista, Colorado.
CCi makes SWIFT crews available to Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) and other agencies to assist in fighting fires within Colorado by dispatch through normal dispatch centers. CSFS has routinely provided a crew liaison when crews have been dispatched to wildland fires.
The crews are self-sufficient and come with supervisors, basic tools and equipment, and transportation. To ensure that the crews function well, the personnel train together and are maintained as crews throughout the year. They are available year-round for assistance with non-fire, woods-related programs and projects.
Article Launched: 5/21/2010 8:52 AM
By Jeffrey Wolf
"The 2010 fire season outlook is better than we've seen in recent years," Ritter said. "Overall, we're looking at average fire potential for the entire Rocky Mountain area." "We still expect to see short periods of hot dry weather which could wind up supporting large fires," he cautioned.
The 2009 fire season was below average, with the four largest fires burning a little over 3,500 acres. One issue that will keep firefighters guessing this year will be the continued pine beetle infestation. More than one million acres of lodgepole pine forest have been nearly destroyed by the tiny pest. Tony Dixon with the U.S. Forest Service says a pine beetle infected forest will undergo three separate stages that could impact how firefighters approach it should there be a fire start within it.
Stage one, a stage quite familiar to Colorado's outdoor enthusiasts, is marked by red-needled pine trees. That stage, says Dixon, is what makes firefighters the most nervous as the trees are extremely dry. The fact that the needles are still on the trees also allows a fire to move quickly from treetop to treetop.
Stage two is marked by barren trunks, something that happens once the needles fall off the trees. A fire will not move as quickly there, but the rotted trees present a "toppling-over" problem. "What we're not going to do is put our firefighters in harms way," Dixon said.
Stage three is marked by trees lying flat on the ground. It can take more than a decade for an infected tree to finally topple over. The trunks on the ground will provide ample fuel for an intense fire, but the thought is the fire will not be able to move very quickly. Still, a fire in this kind of a forest will present unique challenges to firefighters. Ritter says a recent $30 million commitment by the U.S. Forest Service to Colorado's forests to help remove beetle kill trees will certainly help the situation.
Fire officials say the one part of the state which could see more activity is northwest Colorado. Forecasters say the area could see a dry summer.
Forest service plans prescribed burns near subdivisions
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
|Working alongside the U.S. Forest Service is the Juniper Valley Buena Vista Crew, operated by Colorado Correctional Industries.
Shown from left are John Markalunas of the U.S. Forest Service and Juniper Valley fire crew bosses Jeff McGinnis and John O'Brien.
Photo by u.s. forest service
The U.S. Forest Service, San Isabel National Forest - Leadville Ranger District is preparing for prescribed burns in Chaffee County later this fall or next spring, when conditions are favorable. The burn will total about 350 acres and take place near the Three and Four Elk Subdivisions. At present, fire crews are using chain saws and hand tools to remove combustible materials in order to reduce fire intensity along the perimeter of the burn area.
The Three and Four Elk prescribed burn project involves broadcast burning to enhance forest health, improve wildlife habitat and reduce hazardous fuels along fuel breaks between Forest Service and private land boundaries. Smoke will be visible for several days during and after the burning. Weather and wind conditions may affect the dates for ignition. Fire management staff will monitor the fuel conditions closely to determine when ignition may take place.
Working alongside the U.S. Forest Service is the Juniper Valley Buena Vista Crew, operated by Colorado Correctional Industries. CCI's State Wildland Inmate Fire Crew (SWIFT) program manages this Type 2 hand crew led by crew bosses Jeff McGinnis and John O'Brien, and provides wildland firefighting and fuels management programs from the Buena Vista Correctional Complex as well as two other correctional facilities.
McGinnis has been with the program since its inception in 2004 and understands the benefit to the individual inmates as well as the community. Inmates enrolled in the program benefit by acquiring life skills that will be utilized upon their release. "I have had individuals in the program that have never had a job before. When they leave the program they have the skills necessary to obtain employment and be successful in their futures," says McGinnis. As a qualified wildland firefighting crew, the Juniper Valley Team controlls fires and assists in preparation and operations of prescribed burns. "The SWIFT program is a tremendous asset to implementing our forest management programs. They provide support for fuels reduction, prescribed burn preparation, fire suppression and various recreation projects," says Bill Schuckert, Salida District Ranger.
Inmates to the rescue
SWIFT mobilized to help with Fruita fire flare up
by Charles Broshous
FRUITA, Colo. - A day after lightning caused a large fire along I-70 west of Fruita, crews were back on scene Monday dousing a major flare up.
Shortly before noon, fire crews returned to the area of Highway 6 & 50 and 15 Road after a wildland fire that raged the day before flared up again. Heavy smoke forced the closure of Interstate 70 for about two hours.
One crew was a State Wildland Inmate Fire Team (SWIFT) from Rifle. Nineteen firefighters from the Juniper Valley Fire Team responded to the scene. The team is a group of specially trained inmates who assist with wildland fire suppression and forest mitigation projects.
There are three SWIFT teams in the state operated by Colorado Correctional Industries, a division of the Colorado Department of Corrections. They are based at the Rifle Correctional Center, the Buena Vista Correctional Center and the Four Mile Correctional Center in Canon City.
The teams are made up of minimum security inmates who receive training equal to that which other wildland firefighters receive. They are available to respond to wildland fires anywhere in the state and to forest mitigation projects up to two hours away from their bases.
Rains douse Middle Elk fire
Of 100 firefighters on the job, all but a dozen released Tuesday
by HEATHER MCGREGOR
NEW CASTLE, Colorado - A half-inch of rain fell on the Middle Elk fire Monday night, leading fire officials to dismiss most of the 100 firefighters who have been battling the blaze since Friday. "The combination of rain and cooler temperatures slowed fire behavior significantly," said Patrick Thrasher, fire information officer for the White River National Forest. "As a consequence, we are downsizing our response by releasing crews and aircraft," Thrasher said Tuesday.
As crews came off their shifts Tuesday, they were released, leaving a crew of about a dozen to monitor the fire over the coming week. Although the rain made a big difference, weather forecasts call for drier and warmer weather later in the week, and officials want to catch the fire early if it flares up. The fire was reported at 4:20 p.m. on Sept. 20. It is about a quarter mile west of the Buford-to-New Castle Road, southwest of Hiner Springs and just north of the Garfield-Rio Blanco county line.
On Saturday, officials evacuated hunting camps in the area and the Meadow Lake Campground. Thrasher said the campground will be opened again by Friday. The Buford-to-New Castle Road has been open to traffic since Monday, and is expected to remain open. The burned area is not in sight of the road, Thrasher noted.
Meanwhile, Forest Service officials continue to investigate the cause of the fire, which was sparked by an unattended or abandoned campfire. "There's a critical concern that this is a result of an unattended campfire," Thrasher said. "We are very concerned about the number of these incidents we are responding to."
He noted that the archery hunting season has ended, and rifle season starts Oct. 13, bringing hundreds of people into the backcountry to hunt and camp. "Folks need to be careful with their fires. Complacency about this will get us in trouble one of these days," Thrasher said.
As of Tuesday, the total fire size was more carefully pinpointed at 257 acres. That's up from Monday's estimate of 224 acres, largely through more accurate mapping, Thrasher said. He said there were no injuries or mishaps involved with the firefighting effort. Two Juniper Valley crews from the Rifle Correctional Center and a helitack crew stationed at the Garfield County Regional Airport near Rifle were among the team fighting the blaze.
Firefighters to get help from correctional complex inmates
by Kristen M. White
Inmates from the Buena Vista Correctional Complex will help with fire mitigation during the summer and can also assist in fighting wildland fires. A State Wildland Inmate Fire Team will be assembled this spring at the correctional complex, a team from Canon City is in its third year, and a team from Rifle is beginning its second year. The program is authorized by state statute, Jack Laughlin, service division manager for Colorado Correctional Industries, said. "It's to create a pool of inmates to respond to disasters, including firefighting," he said. Hundreds of inmates apply for the crews, but Laughlin said only 22-24 are "retained" on a crew.
Locally, use of the Buena Vista crew has been requested by the Chaffee County Fire Protection District. The district received a grant to bring a tub grinder to the county later this year to grind slash piles generated by wildfire mitigation projects. Laughlin said the Buena Vista crew will help thin fuels on public and private land.
To be eligible for the crew, inmates must be non-violent offenders and cannot be sex offenders. They must be minimum or restrictive minimum security. Crew members must have a high school diploma or a GED, be "report-free" for six months, meaning they have not received disciplinary action, and must waive their parole or community placement until the end of the fire season. "If we're hiring (a crew) we don't want guys going out and having to re-train," Laughlin said. Inmate crews receive Red Card wildland fire training _ the same training all wildland firefighters complete.
The inmate fire crew program is a self-sufficient program, not funded by taxpayers. Therefore, people using the crews must pay for the help, but Laughlin said the price is less than for similar commercial crews. For the inmates, being a part of the fire crew can be good experience and is a way to earn "more" money than a typical inmate. "It pays better than most programs," Laughlin said. "They can earn up to $6 a day on a fire. Normal pay for an inmate is 60 cents a day."
Most inmates on the crews don't have any previous firefighting experience, although most have some kind of knowledge that helps with mitigation, such as knowing how to use a chainsaw. "By and large, they have no experience with fire, but they're eager to learn," Laughlin said. "They know post-release there is some opportunity (in the field)."
He said use of the crew depends on things such as the season and fire conditions. "Our first crew, two years ago, did about 65 days out," Laughlin said. "But last year our two crews combined did less days. It just depends on how much work is available." If the crew is helping fight an actual wildfire, they are eligible to travel anywhere in Colorado and stay as long as two weeks. If members are working on mitigation and other projects, they typically stay within two hours of the complex so they can return each evening.
Two staff members accompany the crew at all times, and no more than 20 crew members are taken at one time. The crews contract with agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management and, less often, with private parties and groups. "Once the local firefighting community found out about this program, they're very excited about having this crew here," Laughlin said.
Colorado Up In Flames
Convicted Criminals Save Lives Through The SWIFT Program
by Laura Lieff
Following an extremely mild winter that brought very little snow to Colorado, the state is ablaze with record temperatures exacerbating the extremely dangerous situation. Wildfires have been burning from Avon in the Vail Valley to High Park near Fort Collins and seemingly everywhere in-between. Buildings, homes and tens of thousands of acres of both private and national forest service land have succumbed to a constant streak of blazes and firefighters all over the state have been working on containment.
On the front lines saving lives is the most unlikely group of firefighters - convicted criminals from Colorado's penitentiary system assembled by the State Wildland Inmate Fire Team (SWIFT). Formed by Colorado Correctional Industries (CCi), SWIFT is a team of fire crews providing hand crew support and assistance on wildland fires within Colorado. The inmates are from the Four Mile Correctional Center in Canon City, the Rifle Correctional Center and the Buena Vista Correctional Center.
Currently in its 11th summer, the SWIFT program came about when it was authorized by statute in 1998 and revised in 2001. The program started in 2001 just prior to the 2002 fire season and the authorizing legislation is 17-24-124 C.R. S. "The Inmate Disaster Relief Program." CCi Service Manager Jack Laughlin was tasked with launching the program in 2001.
"We started the program in partnership with the Colorado State Forest Service and made ourselves available via the Interagency Dispatch system which manages firefighting resources throughout the region," Laughlin explained. "We started with a single crew in 2002, added the Rifle crew in 2003 and the Buena Vista crew in 2004."
When the inmates are not on fire assignment they are doing forest-related work such as fuels reduction, fire mitigation, trail construction and planting. Fuels reduction is manipulation, including combustion or removal of fuels, to reduce the likelihood of ignition and to lessen potential damage and resistance to control. This process often includes thinning and prescribed burning.
What It Takes
As for the physical requirement, all convicts must pass a pre-qualification fitness test in order to be considered, the main component of which is a 1.5 mile run in less than 12 minutes. There are also pushup, sit-up and pull-up requirements.
According to Laughlin, he receives close to 300 applicants or inquiries annually for less than 100 openings and the process is very thorough. Offenders fill out an application, which is either available via someone in the program or via the offenders' case manager. Laughlin and his team then review the applications and if the candidate is acceptable a fitness test and interview are scheduled.
"We take applications throughout the year, but we attempt to limit our training to once annually in February," said Laughlin. "We then have crews available beginning in March for the early season fire work that has been common for the last few years. We take applications from qualifying offenders from all facilities and will either travel during the winter to facilities outside of our home units or have prospective candidates screened locally and then sent to a facility where we have a program. Even then staff can reject any candidate."
All Around Advantages
"Participation in this program is a privilege and the offenders are typically respectful of the opportunity that is provided for them," Laughlin explained. "They are often provided with a life experience that is both rewarding and life-altering. There are not many jobs in this world, especially inmate jobs, that provide the kind of satisfaction and positive reinforcement that this work provides."
According to Laughlin, over 30 of the 600 offenders that have participated in the program have pursued the field after their release. While not all of them have become firefighters, many have obtained jobs in forestry management.
The public benefits from this program as well since the SWIFT crews do not rely on taxpayer money for compensation. Instead, they generate their own income by charging for their services to pay for equipment, supplies, vehicles, tools, etc. T hey also rely on fees charged to state, local and federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and non-profit organizations who contract with CCi for firefighting services.
Because CCi charges less than half the cost of a typical federal firefighting crew, Laughlin says the program has saved state taxpayers over $3 million during the past decade due to their lower costs and the "good time" offenders earn by participating in the program. "This is a great program that instills a positive self-image in men that have not had much success in that area," Laughlin noted. "It provides a valuable service to the citizens of Colorado and has saved those taxpayers millions of dollars."
He continued, "The earned time does not go above the maximum that they can earn, but it allows the offender to reach that time much faster. In addition, because they have demonstrated that they can work and act appropriately back in society they are more likely to be viewed favorably by the Parole Board and Community Corrections Boards when they are eligible to apply."
According to Laughlin, this praise is well-deserved. "We have a workforce that is motivated, readily available and geographically spread throughout the state to respond in areas that may not have any other hand crews available," he said. "This business is very much a reputation-based business and if we are not an effective, professional resource we would not be utilized regardless of our price."
All fire crews are supervised by two CCi staff members who provide correctional and fire line supervision. Each crew has at least one staff member that is certified as a crew boss. The crews all receive training as wildland firefighters - the same as anyone that is going to work on a wildfire. They also receive sawyer (power saw) training, basic incident command and first aid.
"Not only is this a viable trade, but the offenders receive college credit for their training and if they choose can enroll in an apprenticeship program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor," Laughlin said. "Most importantly, this program - similar to all CCi programs - teaches the value of a work ethic, the merits of positive behavior and how to work within a team that has a common goal."
LAKE DILLON FIRE
Lending a Hand
Inmate crews man front lines against wildfires
By TRACY HARMON
CANON CITY Displaced residents have cheered the wildfire team as it prepared to do battle with the flames, others have wanted pictures of the men who saved their homes - it is not another typical day in prison for the State Wildland Inmate Fire Team. In fact, since the state Legislature in 1998 authorized the inmate disaster relief program, it has seemed surreal to those involved. "When it first started, to me it sounded like a government boondoggle that was pretty far out of the box for corrections," admitted Jack Laughlin, a Correctional Industries manager who heads the program. "I figured it would last a few months and then fizzle out."
The first inmate fire crew hit the ground running in the summer of 2002, working out of the Youth Offender System in Pueblo during Colorado's worst fire season ever. The inmate's reputation for top-notch firefighting has helped the program grow to the point where this summer there are three crews of 20-plus inmates each fighting fires out of Canon City, Buena Vista and Rifle. "The staff got really excited and the inmates are thrilled to be out there because it is a culture change for them. They quit being inmates and start being firefighters," Laughlin said. For inmates like Mark Hiatt, a fire crew boss, being back on the fire line is the best place to be despite the inherent danger of the job. "I had six total years of experience fighting fires on the streets in Oregon. This is my first year here, and it's good to be able to use my skills instead of sitting in a cage," Hiatt said. "I think this is great. They (fellow firefighters) treat us like humans and it's beautiful. It's a little scary - always scary - but we have a good boss and everyone knows what they're doing. We have more training here than I had on the street," Hiatt said.
At a recent field training day, inmates cut a long, 12-to-18-inch fire line through a swath of weeds and grass, tried using water hoses from a pumper truck and practiced heading for cover beneath fire retardant tents in case they get caught in a blaze. Thanks to a partnership with the Colorado State Forest Service, each inmate has the same National Wildfire Coordinator Group training as anyone who will work on a wildland fire, including an arduous fitness test that consists of completing a 3-mile hike carrying a 45-pound pack within 45 minutes. "It is a very physically demanding job. These guys will be out anywhere up to 16 days and when you go four or five days without a shower and sleep on the ground it is very difficult," Laughlin said.
Statute requires the inmates be minimum or minimum-restrictive security inmates. Sex offenders or inmates guilty of violent crimes are not accepted. Each inmate is required to have a high school or GED level education, be physically fit and have gone six months without a disciplinary problem. "We want that work. Physically demanding, labor intensive work meets exactly what our goal is," Laughlin said.
When they go out on fires - the Canon City crew already has helped with fires in Bent Canyon and near Salida this summer - the inmates look and act the part. The firefighters range in age from 19 to into their 50s and wear the same fire-resistent green trousers, bright yellow shirts and black leather boots as other firefighters; carry bright red packs laden with equipment; and carry shovels, axes and other tools of the trade. "We equip them as well as anyone out there and our crews work at two-thirds the cost of a comparable U.S. Forest Service Crew. At $3,000 a day, we cost about half as much as a private crew," Laughlin said.
Although inmate firefighting crews are fairly common throughout the Western United States, the Colorado program is one of the few that operates without taxpayer support. "It has to be self-sufficient. It will never be a huge money-maker, but it is self-supporting and we have been able to grow by two crews in two years," Laughlin said. Laughlin is thrilled that after 53 days on assignment last summer, the inmate fire crews saved the state more than $100,000 in firefighting costs. For each day an inmate works on a fire, he is earning day-per-day credit, which shortens sentences and knocks an additional $100,000 off the cost required to feed and house the inmates.
SWIFT supervisor Nick Martin, who helped start the program three years ago, traded his blue shirt correctional-officer uniform for a white shirt (no collar here) and loves his new job. "It has exceeded all my expectations - I did not think it would be this big in three years. I just tried to develop the program off what I have experienced in 22 years with the Florence Volunteer Fire Department," Martin said. With the help of new supervisor Troy Slate, a Canon City Volunteer Fire Department member, and state Forest Service workers like crew boss Jeff Burns, the inmates learn to fight fires with real training and work experience which means they will work, at times, 18-hour days.
"We get evaluated on every crew and I know we are held to different standards, so we are going to be the best out there. We've gotten good or excellent ratings on every fire we've ever been on," Laughlin said. In fact, at one fire, Burns recalls that a fire boss asked whether Burns would keep the prison crew or a private crew to help finish off fire containment work. "I told him I would have the convicts stay on over the private crew, and he already was thinking along the same lines, so the prison crew got the assignment based on their reputation," Burns said.
It seems the fire crew is so well thought of that it is like a double-edged sword for Correctional Industries. The parole board is setting a large number of the firefighting inmates free"I had seven guys hit the parole board in one day and went seven for seven. We had 22 guys leave the program in Rifle last year - 16 were paroled or given community placement," Laughlin said. Several have gone on to work on fire mitigation projects, one even got hired by a private wildland fire company.
The fire crews don't just work fires, they have found year-round employment in fire mitigation work doing things like forest thinning, chipping of downed wood, even tree planting. Locally, they have done fire mitigation work at Pueblo Mountain Park and also are working on bits and pieces of the Front Range Fuel Treatment program for the Colorado State Forest Service. "Our inmates interact and work in a tough environment extremely well," Laughlin said. "We're proud of them."
|By MICHAEL de YOANNA|
As the Picnic Rock Fire spreads along rocky hillsides, a small city of tents spreads across a field in Fort Collins. Here, next to the Poudre Fire Authority's Fort Collins training center on the west side of town, firefighters rest alongside their engines, backpacks, hard hats and shovels. The estimated 400 fire personnel on the scene come here to eat, shower and get some rest in conditions that have been brutal. "It gets pretty explosive where the trees are at," said Jesus Rodriguez, a firefighter with the Rifle Icemen, a crew of minimum-security inmates run by the state Department of Corrections. "The fire is fierce. The wind scatters it from one hill to another. That's when it blows up on you and you have to get out of there."
The fire began Tuesday when a small waste fire lit by a Poudre Canyon resident got out of control. Coming to the tent city gives Rodriguez, 19, time to reflect on the blaze that has so far eaten up 8,000 acres of land and on Thursday claimed a house and garage in the Bonner Peak Ranch subdivision. From here, firefighters have a panoramic view of the fire. On Thursday, there was a billowing plume in hot, dry weather. On Friday, the smoke was obscured by overcast skies that brought moist, cooler weather.
Firefighters usually arrive at nightfall and leave at the break of dawn. They are allowed to work up to 16 hours, including a half-hour lunch break, and then they must rest. Firefighters can work up to 14 days in a row and then must take five days off. Some say they might sleep on the mountain to save time, but others definitely will return. There are meals, bathrooms and other amenities here. "We try to make life as comfortable as we can out there," said Steven Hall, a spokesman for Rocky Mountain Area Team Bravo, which is coordinating local, state and federal fire resources. Hall said virtually everybody involved with the fire, from the commander to firefighters, will be sleeping in a tent in the field. Clinton Bellingar, 25, a firefighter with the Colorado State Forest Service, said it could get cold at night. "It's good for the fire if it snows, but not for the camping out," he said. Brandon Hawkinson, a member of the Job Corps out of Boxelder, S.D., came to help firefighters getsettled in." We make sure everything runs smoothly," he said.
Firefighters are surprised that the tent city, a common sight at wildfires, is needed so early in the season. Edward One Star, crew boss for the Rosebud Agency crew, a U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs team from South Dakota, said early fires, fueled by dry conditions, don't bode well for the rest of the year. " When it's really early like this, it's going to be busy," he said. "In 2001, the season was early and we went all around -- to Colorado, Wyoming, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee." The 2001 season for the crew ended in October in Montana, where wildfires raged for months, he said. Others at the tent city say it is hard to rest for long, knowing they are needed. "There's quite a few homes being threatened now," said Tony Lodice, a firefighter with the West Metro Fire Protection District in Lakewood. He hopped on a 500-gallon fire engine and headed toward the smoke.
Originally published Saturday, April 3, 2004
Inmates express burning desire to help out
|By Ryan Graff
When there isn't a fire burning, the Juniper Valley Rifle Icemen are at their firehouse doing what firefighters do.   Some play cards,
others hustle in and out, sweating under heavy packs and wildfire-fighting gear. The difference between this firehouse and most other wildland firehouses is
that Juniper Valley's is inside the fence at the Rifle Correctional Facility.
In most regards, Juniper Valley functions just like any other fire crew. They are requested through the dispatch center in Grand Junction
when they are needed. They can stay out for 14 days in a row, until they are required to take two days of rest, just like any other crew.  The difference is
that they are counted several times a day to make sure each of the inmates are still where they are supposed to be. A redundant system of counts, "maintains very
good accountability," said Johnson.
Though it is impossible to tell if Juniper Valley SWIFT firefighters will keep fighting fires after they are released, which is a goal of
the program, most say they will. "We're going to learn a good skill that we can use when we get out," said Juniper Valley firefighter Charles DeWeese.
Most of the inmates said SWIFT is a good program. But they recognize what they really need is to take responsibility for their own actions when they get out of prison. "It is a good program? Yeah," said Robert Taylor, who is near the end of a long prison sentence and the admitted "old man" of the group. "Its a good opportunity," he said, but added,"nothing's going to change unless you want to change." Still the enthusiasm of the Juniper Valley firefighters is enormous. "Most of my life I've been taking from people, taking their cars, taking their jewelry," said Ryan Garcia. "It gives us a chance for redemption, to give back."
Originally published: Monday, August 04, 2003
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
|Article Launched: 07/15/2005 03:55:00 AM|
By Erin Emery
Denver Post Staff Writer
The Mason fire clung to life Thursday, with only weak puffs of smoke rising from the hillsides between Wetmore and Beulah in southern Colorado.
The lightning-sparked fire, which started July 6, is 70 percent contained. Officials say 11,716 acres have burned, fewer than the 12,566 acres that were thought to have burned Wednesday. The number was adjusted because of more precise mapping. The U.S. Forest Service expected full containment of the fire by Saturday evening.
"I don't think there was any forward progress. They're putting this thing to bed," said John Grieve, a state district forester with the Colorado State Forest.
Some firefighters and their engines were sent home Thursday, as were fixed-wing aircraft, though several helicopters continued to work the fire, which has cost $4.4 million to fight.
The first crew called to the fire came from the Four Mile Correctional Center in Canon City. The 20-inmate crew and two supervisors attacked the fire just west of Babcock's Hole, helped build a fire line and worked in mop-up stages in recent days. On Thursday night, they returned to prison.
"We're extremely tired. Completely drained, a lot of real severe muscle aches; feet are really sore," said Sgt. Nick Martin, a correctional officer and firefighter who supervised the crew.
Before the fire made a spectacular 6-mile run Sunday, the State Wildland Inmate Fire Team had been building a fire line and creating a buffer zone of defensible space around Bears Head Ranch, a former dude ranch with cabins, barns and homes in the San Isabel Forest.
"In all reality, when the fire blew up on Sunday, that buffer zone that the crews put in there ... probably saved that ranch," Martin said. The inmate firefighters earn $6 a day, compared with the 60 cents a day inmates earn in other Colorado Correctional Industries programs. CCI charges $3,000 a day for a fire, which " is significantly less than similarly sized and equipped and typed crews," said Jack Laughlin, service division manager for CCI.
Eligible inmates earn a day of good time for each day worked on a fire. Inmates must be considered a minimum security risk to become firefighters; each must have a high- school diploma or a GED. No sex offenders or violent offenders are allowed. They have to be free from infractions in the prison for six months and drug-free for a year.
"No jerks," Laughlin said. "Their behavior in the (four) years that we've been doing this has been exemplary. We've never had an incident on a fire. I'm not saying they are choirboys; obviously, they are not."
Staff writer Erin Emery can be reached at 719-522-1360 or email@example.com.
Wildfire fire danger high in parts of state
By Jerd Smith, Rocky Mountain News
|March 7, 2006|
The dozens of wildfires Colorado has already seen this year may be a sign of things to come, with more than half the state now facing higher-than-normal wildfire risks. "We're expecting above-normal fire danger for March and for the whole season," said Larry Helmerick, fire information officer at the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center in Lakewood.
Since Jan. 1, 40 wildfires have been logged, most on the Front Range, Helmerick said, burning several thousand acres from Fort Collins, to Boulder, to Yuma and beyond. In wetter years, few if any fires would have been recorded this early, he said.
The center tracks wildfires and coordinates response efforts in Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, South Dakota and Kansas. Its data indicate that all of the Front Range and most of the southern part of the state are facing higher-than-average risk for wildfires.
The fire warning comes nearly two months after Gov. Bill Owens issued a midwinter burn ban Jan. 9. The ban was in place 30 days.
Since then the governor's office has made $358,000 available to help counties fight fires - something that typically doesn't occur until April, according to Owens' spokesman Dan Hopkins.
Hopkins said the governor expects to make an additional $2.7 million available for firefighting in April.
"We're watching this very carefully," Hopkins said.
Last year, healthy snowpacks and a wet fall gave firefighters and water managers reason to believe the drought was on the run and the state was safe from devastating wildfires like those of 2002 and subsequent years.
The Front Range and southern parts of the state, however, have seen remarkably dry weather since November, according to Nolan Doesken, assistant state climatologist.
"Everywhere except on the crest of the Continental Divide is dry," Doesken said. Normally the Front Range would have received an average of 1.5 to 2 inches of precipitation from November through February. Instead it's received, on average, about one-half inch to an inch of moisture.
"There are a lot of grasslands that are crisp," Doesken said. "And the spring forecasts are leaning toward dry. Every week that passes without a major storm - the fire danger goes up."
In addition, spectacular early snows in places such as Steamboat Springs, Winter Park and Keystone have begun shrinking.
They constitute the only regions of the state with above-average moisture and the potential for spring floods. State officials are watching several mountain counties for flood danger. They are: Eagle, Lake, Routt, Summit, Grand and Moffat.
Water managers across the state said the past two years have helped rebuild stored water supplies, with reservoirs statewide more than 90 percent full. Most of Colorado's water supplies derive from melting mountain snows.
"We're much better off than we were," said Brian Werner, a spokesman for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. "But we have seen a drop in (mountain snowpacks) of about 15 percent to 20 percent."
Tom Ryan, a hydrologist for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Salt Lake City, is responsible for tracking the snowpacks that help fill Lake Powell every year, and those, too, are down significantly.
Ryan said the forecast for flows into Lake Powell this spring have dropped from 105 percent of average on Feb. 1 to 91 percent of average on March 1, a decline in real water terms of 1.1 million acre feet.
Jack Byers, deputy director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, said the state's comparatively full reservoirs will help offset what could become a very dry spring and summer.
But he said he's worried that the snowpacks will melt as dramatically as they did two years ago, when a hot, dry March wiped out much of the winter snowpack.
"We're very concerned," Byers said.
smithj@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-892-5474
Inmates find new spark as firefighters
Dangerous work gives prisoners hope, pride
Denver Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 19, 2004
There was something different about 20 of the 420 firefighters who battled the Picnic Rock fire near Fort Collins, although it was nothing that could be seen through
the soot and grime on their faces. They worked side by side with the other firefighters. They got hot, dirty and in harm's way as waist-high flames and
heavy smoke rose from the forest floor. No visual clues distinguished them from their colleagues. Yet the 20 men were prisoners, part of the Juniper
Valley firefighting crew based out of the Rifle Correctional Facility. Some of the inmates were so passionate about their work that they had chosen the
flames over freedom for the duration of the firefighting season. Firefighting "makes you feel that going to prison was a blessing in disguise,"
said Bruce Weichmann, laughing at his words. Juniper Valley is one of two such crews; fire and prison officials have been so happy with the program that
they're adding a third.
During fires, the inmates work worlds away from the concrete and chain-link fences of prison. They live without walls, cuffs or shackles. They camp under the stars and spend days in the backcountry. The inmate firefighters carry chain saws, flares and hand tools sharpened to a fine edge. The two unarmed guards assigned to the team work alongside their charges on the fire line. As the prisoners repeat constantly, usually with a smile, they're "just another firefighter." The program has "been a success financially, and it's been a firefighting success," said Alison Morgan, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections. "On some fires last year (the Juniper Valley) team was the first team in and the last team out."
Patrick Weeakes chose to stay in prison so he could join the team, and he wasn't the only one on the Juniper Valley crew to do so. To prevent the loss of crew members at midseason, the inmate firefighters are required to waive parole or placement in halfway houses for the duration of the fire season. Weeakes had been accepted into the community placement program, meaning he was on his way to a halfway house. " It's a pretty easy choice," Weeakes said without pause. "This is a career opportunity, a new start."
The state legislature allowed the prison fire teams in 1998, but the first crew didn't get up and running until 2002. That group, which at the time was based in Pueblo and has since moved to Canon City, did so well that the Juniper Valley crew was added last year. And another group of 25 inmates is in training at Buena Vista Correctional Facility. "Any time you see a program triple in size in three years, it's obviously a success," Morgan said. The inmate firefighters cannot be violent criminals, sex offenders or arsonists. Most are in prison on drug- related charges. "For so long, I've taken from society," said Nathan Reeves, 24, formerly of Boulder. "This is the first time I'm giving something back. In a good way, it makes you feel small. You're part of a group that's doing something right." Reeves was convicted of attempted burglary; a few months ago he returned to prison after violating his parole. His sentence will end in October. He said he hopes to find work as a wildland firefighter when he is freed. "I love excitement," Reeves said, his face and red goatee smudged with soot after the crew had spent the day digging on a steep, rocky hillside. "Truth be told, excitement was one of the reasons I did the things I did. But this excitement is healthy. In a good way, we're playing with fire."
Corrections officials estimate that it takes about $228,000 a year to run the crew; none of that comes from state coffers. The prison fire crews are part of Colorado Correctional Industries, a private, for-profit company set up by the state. In fiscal year 2002, the Canon City team made about $50,000 in profit. The inmate firefighters work cheap. The enterprise is paid $3,000 a day for a crew, although other crews typically start at $4,000 a day and range up to $6,000. The enterprise pays the prisoners $6 a day, 10 times what other prison labor pays but much less than what typical firefighters earn. "It's essentially a business run inside the walls of the prison," said Jack Laughlin of Colorado Correctional Industries, who oversees all three inmate crews. Providing firefighters more cheaply, Laughlin argued, saves taxpayer money - about $100,000 in the 2002 fiscal year when compared with an equivalent U.S. Forest Service crew. The inmates are also rewarded by having a day taken off their sentence for every day they're on the fire line. Because the inmates serve shorter sentences, Laughlin said, taxpayers pay less to keep them behind bars, a cost that Laughlin also estimates at $100,000 during fiscal 2002. But the cost of the program isn't the only concern - security and safety rank high. Although a number of firefighters have been kicked off crews for tobacco violations, none has ever escaped or attempted to do so, Morgan said. She acknowledged that giving prisoners such freedom could be risky. "When you look at it from public safety, it was certainly outside of the box," Morgan said. "It's not a normal thing, but it's worked." And the program also works for the inmates involved. Each of the firefighters, even those who have just begun, tell of a moment they discovered pride. For Tony Martino, who has been on Corrections Department fire crews since they began, it happened last year when the crew sat in a restaurant for dinner on its way back to Rifle. "These two kids came up to us, little schoolkids," Martino said. "They gave me a hug and a kiss, and they asked us if we would pose for pictures with them. Firefighters had saved their house, and to them we were just firefighters." Martino hopes to work as a firefighter when he gets out of prison - as do most of the inmates. His felony record will make that difficult but not impossible, Laughlin said. The competition for the jobs is tough, and crews can be hesitant to hire criminals, but a few of the program's graduates have gone on to full-time employment.
The correctional officers guarding the inmate firefighters live alongside their charges, and they too are changed by the experience. For guard Pete Davis, one of the most challenging parts of the job is that he's grown to trust inmates, something he had carefully avoided in the past. "It was hard," Davis said. "When we're behind the gates there's a safety zone- and that's physical and emotional. We assume that zone because we need it." But Davis and the other guards can't operate like that on the fire line. "If I fall down a hill and break my leg, it's these guys that are going to carry me out of the woods," he said. And it's not only the guard who must trust the inmate firefighters. The Juniper Valley crew worked near houses that were left unattended and in some cases unlocked. Carolyn Stienmer was one of those forced to evacuate her home. As she left, the Juniper Valley crew was arriving. "That they (the prisoners) were even here is news to me, so I guess that's a good thing," Stienmer said. "They're firefighters. They were well-supervised, and they were working hard."
Trust must also be earned from those who run firefighting operations. So only the best-behaved prisoners are allowed on the crew. They must have a GED or a high school diploma. They can't have any reports of poor behavior for six months prior to joining the program, and any infractions while in the program result in immediate dismissal. Laughlin said he receives about 200 qualified applications from across the state each year and this year chose only 75. Prisoners can apply from any facility and are transferred to a crew's home prison if accepted. "Still, a lot of people don't know how selective we are, and sometimes they're wary," Laughlin said. "They hear 'prisoners' and assume the worst." But the Juniper Valley crew, although only 2 years old, is convincing fire bosses that inmates can be trusted. Geoffrey Bell is a supervisor for the National Inter- Agency Fire Center, the federal body that oversees firefighting on large fires. He oversaw the firefighting efforts for a large swath of the Picnic Rock fire, and Juniper Valley was one of his crews - his first experience supervising a Colorado inmate crew." They were a solid group," Bell said. "I found them to be very dependable." The crew did lack experience, a concern for any fire boss. "But what they lacked in experience they made up for in heart and working hard," Bell said. He paid them what may be the highest compliment one firefighter can pay another:
WESTCLIFFE - Firefighters succeeded Thursday in holding back the 700-acre Tyndall Fire 100 miles southwest of Denver, even as afternoon wind gusts fanned embers into new outbreaks.
"The conditions are very bad, with the winds and the low humidity, but right now we're holding it," said Mike Kessler, the incident commander.
"We've had a lot of breaks and no homes have been damaged," he said.
By evening, favorable winds helped firefighters achieve 50 percent containment of the fire.
"Things are looking good," said Steve Segin, a Forest Service fire information officer. "Southwest flowing winds pushed the fire back onto itself. Everyone is feeling pretty good."
The fire started Wednesday when high winds toppled a tree into a power line.
The downed line sparked and erupted into flames that raced through parched grasses.
Road crews from Custer and Fremont counties worked through the night with bulldozers and road graders to encircle the fire with broad swaths of upturned earth, he said. Engine crews, meanwhile, guarded a dozen homes near Cristo Vista.
"The fire was coming straight at us Wednesday night until the winds shifted," said Colleen Jorge, who lives across the highway from the fire's path. "The flames were like a knife that went straight up the road."
Jorge and her neighbors had packed up to evacuate, but stayed at their homes after the winds shifted the flames.
Fire crews saved four homes within the fire's perimeter, said Ralph Bellah, forest information officer.
As winds picked up in the afternoon, spirals of smoke from spot fires and dust from the dozers turned the sky gray as clouds moved in from the west. Fire bosses watched the sky and hoped for rain.
"Winds are up and they're fluctuating," said D.J. Chess, an assistant foreman on an engine crew. "We've mopped up the edges and we hope it won't spread farther."
About 120 people were on the fire lines, and new crews were expected to arrive overnight, said Bellah.
The winds had grounded a chopper with water buckets and air tankers had been requested, he said.
"We got lucky on this because of the topography," said Dennis Page, a division supervisor with the crews. "In some areas, there was just enough green and moisture to stop the fire."
Meanwhile, the Rocky Mountain Area Predictive Services issued a red-flag warning Thursday for a huge swath of southern Colorado, meaning conditions were favorable for big, fast-moving fires.
At least 60,604 acres have burned in Colorado this year, said Larry Helmerick, spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center. That compares with 41,048 acres for all of 2005.
A stand of trees burns Friday near Wetmore, where the Mason Gulch Fire forced the evacuation of 50 homes. The fire has since edged its way into Pueblo County.
Firefighters battle Wetmore blaze
By PETER ROPER
WETMORE -Afternoon winds doubled the size of a spreading wildfire just south of this mountain community Friday while firefighters tried to protect about 50 homes in an area along Greenwood Road.
The blaze covered 1,500 acres by evening Friday and had crossed into Pueblo County after U.S. Forest Service officials upgraded the blaze to a "Type 2" wildfire, prompting federal officials to bring in a national fire control management team.
Mark Mullenix, the new incident commander, told Wetmore residents at a community meeting Friday night that more Hotshot fire crews were on the way to attack the fire. He said Friday's mid-day thunderstorm fueled the blaze, which rapidly moved eastward, doubling the fire's size in an afternoon.
"When that column got dark and stood straight up, there wasn't much anyone could do," he said. Roughly 300 firefighters are at the blaze and Mullenix said
they would be on the line Friday night. The new fire management team is setting upheadquarters in Florence High School. Mullenix is one of 62 Type 2 incident
commanders nationally, and he gave no predictions of when the fire would be under control. He said firefighters would be on the line Friday night and would attack
the blaze on Saturday.
Smoke billows into the sky from the Mason Gulch Fire, which U.S. Forest Service officials say had burned 1,500 acres by late Friday.
Custer County Sheriff officials, however, assured residents who had been evacuated that fire trucks were parked at their homes to protect them, starting Friday afternoon. No structures had been damaged by the blaze thus far.
A fleet of nine air tankers circled the blaze all day, dive-bombing through clouds of smoke to dropred retardant, but the Mason Gulch Fire - as it's been dubbed by forest service officials - had grown to 750 acres by Friday morning and spread throughout the day.
Wetmore sits at the first line of mountains west of Pueblo, and the fire, which started early Thursday, was primarily burning in a small valley called Babcock Hole. By evening, it had advanced east to gain a toehold across the Pueblo County line.
Pueblo County Sheriff officials contacted about 50 residents in the western end of the county to advise of the shift in the fire Friday evening.
"We used our 911 system to let them know that they may want to take the precaution of moving livestock or being prepared to evacuate if the ire grows stronger in their direction," said Cmdr. Greg McCain.
Small fingers of smoke and flames also moved west, over the crest of the mountains toward Colorado 96. People stopped their cars along the scenic highway to watch the white smoke curl along the tree-covered ridge line. But the prevailing winds were blowing the blaze the other direction, toward Pueblo.
"There is no containment at all right now," Steve Segin, a forest service spokesman told reporters during a midday briefing. That was just about the time the winds from a small thunderstorm caused the fire to surge again.
Sheriff deputies evacuated residents living in the Greenwood area early morning. Many lingered around Wetmore during the day, watching the smoke curtain climb upover the green mountains.
"I left at midnight last night," said Eileen Cooper, who had to move 60 goats to a friend's pasture on Thursday. Cooper, who has 80 acres on County Road 390, said his house and barn would be in the path of the fire if it kept moving east.
"There's a clearing around the house, but if the fire jumps the road, I could lose half my place," Cooper said with some anxiety. "Who knows what's going to happen?"
Hal McConnell had driven from Pueblo to see if his summer home was in danger from the blaze. At midday the fire was moving away from the hillside where McConnell's house is located.
"My father built that cabin," he said.
Ted Moore, forest fire manager for the Pike and San Isabel National Forests, told the Wetmore audience that the core of the fire is in a steeply sloped area along Mason Gulch Road - a dangerous "chimney" for firefighters. He said the air tankers have been trying to "cool" that blaze but that, ultimately, firefighters will have to put it out.
The army of firefighters and trucks coming to the blaze grew all day Friday. They were summoned from as far away as Denver and Lamar.
The good news was that no one had been injured and no structures damaged, thus far, Segin told reporters.
One of the first teams of yellow-shirted firefighters summoned to the blaze came from the Colorado Department of Corrections in Canon City. The team of 20 inmate firefighters is called the State Wildland Inmate Fire Team.
Firefighters from Littleton and Fowler remove shrubs and trees from the yard of a home near Wetmore. Wildfire crews from across the state have joined to fight the blaze, which started Thursday.
Jack Laughlin, who administers the inmate program, but serves as a firefighter when it is deployed, said the blaze was erratic on Thursday as crews tried to scratch out fire lines in the heavy underbrush along the steephillsides in Babcock Hole.
"There is a lot of fuel, underbrush and scrub oak out there that is burning very hot," he said. "We were attacking the fire on its edges all day, but it just tripled overnight, which is very unusual."
Other fire teams also summoned to the blaze, include a Type 1 Hotshot team from Monument.
Cass Cairns, another forest service official, said the trees are alarmingly dry in the region, despite the wet winter. Moisture levels in the trees are running between 60 and 95 percent (dry), which is making the fire danger worse, she said.
Forest service officials upgrade a fire to Type 2 status when it begins to threaten houses or poses new dangers, Cairns said.
MASON GULCH FIRE
- U.S. Forest Service says the fire was burning out of control on Friday and upgraded the blaze to a Type 2 wildfire because it was endangering homes.
- On Thursday, the fire covered about 250 acres, but spread to 1,500 acres by Friday evening. Gusting winds throughout the day fed the flames, worsening the blaze and spreading a cloud of smoke haze from Canon City to Greenhorn Mountain.
- The fire was caused by a lightning strike late Wednesday in Babcock Hole, a small valley in the mountains south of Wetmore. It spread eastward to cross the Pueblo County line by Friday evening.
- Custer County officials evacuated about 50 houses in the Greenwood area early Friday.
- Roughly 300 firefighters, from as far away as Denver and Lamar, and a fleet of 10 air tankers were fighting the blaze on Friday.
AP PHOTO/JERRY McBRIDE
Anthony Monson (right) and Marrio Cardenas (second from right) along with other members of the Juniper Valley Fire Crew, a State of Colorado Department of Corrections inmate crew from Buena Vista, create a fire break Monday around the Bear Fire southwest of Durango.
Southwest part of state suffers with heat, fire
Lightning gets the blame for the fast-moving fire.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
DURANGO - A fast-moving wildfire destroyed a house and blackened 1,250 acres in southwest Colorado, but no injuries were reported, firefighters said Monday.
The fire, about 11 miles south of Mancos and 240 miles southwest of Denver, was reported Sunday on farmland and forests left vulnerable by beetle damage and prolonged hot, dry weather.
Wind-whipped flames reached 100 feet high, said Eric La Price, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management. The cause was believed to be lightning.
Containment was listed at zero percent.
Tom Cotten told the Durango Herald his three-bedroom house burned down Sunday near the small town of Marvel after authorities advised him to leave.
Cotten said he threw his guns, photographs and vinyl record collection into his Jeep Cherokee and fled. As he sped away, he saw a stand of pine trees about 60 yards from his home catch fire, and he learned later his house was destroyed, he said.
"I've done this more than once. This year it got to me," Cotten said.
The Herald reported that firefighters who were spraying Cotten's house with water had to drop their hoses and flee.
Residents of nearby houses were warned about the fire and some voluntarily evacuated, said Capt. David Griggs of the La Plata County sheriff's office. Griggs said no mandatory evacuation orders had been issued.
La Price said no other homes were immediately threatened on Monday, but the fire was two miles from about 20 houses. About 100 firefighters were battling the fire, focusing on cutting lines around that edge of the fire to protect the homes, he said.
About 20 percent of the fire was burning on the Southern Ute Reservation, he said.