Cuts pose a threat to Larch fire crews

Program trains inmates to fight blazes in forests

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Nearly 100 inmates from Larch and Cedar Creek corrections facilities participate in the fire crew program during the summer.

A Department of Natural Resources program that employs inmates to fight forest fires may face setbacks as the agency continues to finalize its budget for the next biennium.

Joe Shramek, the manager of the DNR’s Resource Protection Division, said he is uncertain of how cuts within the agency will flesh out overall. Even so, Shramek said he wants to protect the correctional camps program, which places minimum security inmates from corrections centers, including Larch and Cedar Creek, on the frontline of forest fires.

“We’re under pressure and need to make reductions within the agency,” he said. “I’m hopeful that we’re going to be able to avoid further reductions in the camps program, particularly because of the value they have to firefighting.”

Officials are still uncertain about the size of the reduction bound to hit the Resource Protection Division, which runs the correctional camps program. Shramek is already aware of two line item reductions for the division.

One is a $1.6 million cut in spending on fire control and the other is a $750,000 reduction in fire regulation. Together, these will limit equipment purchases, “freezing firefighter pay or doing less training than we would typically do,” Shramek said.

This latest series of cuts comes after two tough years for the program. Between 2009 and 2011, Shramek witnessed the largest statewide reduction in the number of inmate firefighting crews he has seen in his 15 years at the DNR.

“In the course of the last two years, we’ve gone from 48 to 33 (crews),” Shramek said, “and that’s been a significant impact.”

Larch and Cedar Creek have two of the largest crews in the state. Nearly 100 inmates from each facility participate in the program over the summer, the height of forest fire outbreaks.

Chuck Turley, the program’s assistant manager for Southwest Washington, oversees operations for crews at Larch, Cedar Creek and Naselle Youth Camp. Turley does not expect the cuts to hit his crews.

He left a couple vacant positions on his staff open during this biennium in case he had to deal with cuts, leaving his crews with possible room for growth in the next two years.

“So, I actually may have a few more boots on the ground than I’ve had here for the last year,” Turley said.

Turley and Shramek consider the inmates’ participation an invaluable service. The DNR pays to train, transport and equip the offenders. In return, they receive a low pay of less than a dollar an hour for fighting forest fires.

When they are not fighting fires, they work on habitat restoration, planting trees and collecting litter in forests.

“Those crews give us a well-trained, and more importantly, available firefighting staff,” Turley said. “If you’re up in the Yacolt Burn State Forest somewhere or down in the Columbia Gorge, our crews are often some of the first ones that are able to get there.”