Legislative budget cuts mean the Department of Natural Resources will have fewer inmate work crews trained to fight forest fires this year.
Operations were closed and crews cut from two prisons in Snohomish and Kitsap counties, as well as from other facilities, officials said. In the past, in partnership with the state Department of Corrections, the DNR maintained 48 10-person inmate firefighting crews stationed at various correction facilities throughout the state. About 16 crews were cut total.
West Side crews got the ax, but officials recognized the need for firefighting capabilities in Eastern Washington, where the climate is hotter and drier and fire season is predicted to heat up above normal this year. Five inmate work crews based out of the Airway Heights Correction Center were spared.
“The DNR recognized that most of the fire load is in Eastern Washington,” said Matt Castle, with the DNR based in Spokane.
Inmate work crews are typically brought in to construct fire lines and with mop-up, in later stages of a fire, said Joe Shramek, DNR’s resource protection division manager based in Olympia. During large fires, crews can be brought in from all over the state to assist local firefighting teams. The cost savings by using inmate crews is substantial, Shramek said.
“The main issue is the Legislature directed us to try and reduce the costs of suppressing a fire,” Shramek said. Having to hire private crews to assist because there aren’t enough inmate crews could mean an increase in costs, he said.
“My main concern is not so much whether we we’ll have crews available,” he said, “it’s the cost.”