Inmate Fire Crew in Western Colorado to Be Dissolved

ASPEN, Colo. — A loud, distant hum reverberated from a tree stand neighboring several Snowmass homes on a recent morning.

Several dead brush and branch piles could be seen neatly stacked among the small patch of trees from the village roadway. Trunks were bare of their lower branches. And up a hill in the stand between two homes, dead trees were being cleared out and pushed through a wood chipper machine, chopped into tiny pieces spread back over the tree stand floor as mulch.

“Cleaning out the debris and dead trees helps reduce potential wildfire fuels and protects the houses around here,” said John Mele, Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority fire marshal, as he walked around the work area.

Every year, the town of Snowmass Village, local homeowners associations and Roaring Fork Fire Rescue officials get together and pinpoint areas of town that need to be cleared of dead trees and brush, Mele said. He explained that this collaborative effort to annually remove forest debris aims to help make Snowmass homes and structures more defensible if a wildfire were to ignite.

Mele also explained that this mainly neighborhood-centric, “nitty-gritty” wildfire mitigation work isn’t usually headed by Roaring Fork Rescue staff _ it’s led by the Rifle Correctional Center’s State Wildland Inmate Fire Team (SWIFT), which has been hired to offer its expertise and cost-effective services to Snowmass Village for roughly a decade.

But after this season, the Rifle inmate hand crew will no longer carry out wildfire mitigation projects in Snowmass or the other Roaring Fork Valley communities it regularly works with. The state is set to dissolve it as part of a business reorganization of the Colorado Correctional Industries (CCI) inmate job skills programs across the state.

“We work with these guys because it’s cost effective but also because they’re an actual wildfire hand crew and have the skills and experience with this,” Mele said. He went on to say the crew has been great to work with over the years and a valuable asset to Snowmass Village. After this year, town partners will have to “explore all of its options” to continue the same quality of annual mitigation work, he said.

The Rifle SWIFT team is one of three in the state that has been helping both provide hand crew assistance and support on state wildfires and carry out wildfire mitigation and woods-related projects for nearly 20 years.

According to CCI’s 2019 annual report, offenders part of the SWIFT crews put in 13,200 man hours fighting wildfires and conducting other forest and fire-related projects, responding to eight fires total.

CCI programs aim to prepare inmates for successful employment upon release from prison by offering supervised workforce and skills-building opportunities across a multitude of fields, its website says. CCI offers some compensation for inmate labor as part of its programming, ranging from 86 cents to $2.49 per day for full-time assignments and starting at 43 cents per day for half-time assignments, according to Colorado Department of Corrections documents.

At the Rifle Correctional Center, inmates can take part in culinary arts, trails and SWIFT programs, CCI’s 2019 annual report says. But after this fire season, Rifle’s SWIFT program will be decommissioned as part of a CCI “reorganization” effort to “ensure that (CCI) can continue to provide opportunities for inmates to learn marketable job skills” and “allow CCI to focus on opportunities and industries that are consistent with modern workforce projections and allow it to be able to reinvest in the areas of infrastructure, equipment, etc.,” according to an email from Annie Skinner, public information officer with the Colorado Department of Corrections.

As of early August, Skinner said there were no plans to add any additional CCI programming in Rifle or to decommission the Canon City and Buena Vista SWIFT programs. She also said the COVID-19 crisis is not specifically connected to the Rifle SWIFT program dissolving.

“The operational decisions CCI is making relating to the reorganization are due to staffing needs, profitability history and projections, and workforce and infrastructure considerations,” Skinner said via email. “As part of this reorganization, several CCI programs will be reduced in size, others will be decommissioned, and some will be absorbed into other divisions.”

For Todd Snyder, crew boss of Rifle’s inmate fire team, he doesn’t understand exactly why Rifle’s SWIFT program is being dissolved but will continue training inmates through the Buena Vista program starting next season.

As he supervised the mitigation work taking place in Snowmass last week, Snyder said he’s stayed in touch with a lot of inmates he’s helped train in wildland firefighting over the past 20 years who have gone on to work successful careers in the field once released from prison.

One of those people is Michael Morgan, who was a part of the Rifle SWIFT program for two years and is now an engine boss for the state of Oregon.

Morgan said the Rifle SWIFT program “pretty much changed my life,” showing him a path to success once he was released from prison.

“There aren’t a lot of options for people with felonies to make money once they get out of prison, but this is one of them,” Morgan said in a phone interview with The Aspen Times. “(Being a part of the SWIFT program) showed me I could work and push myself a hell of a lot further than I ever thought and that I could live a normal life.”

Now as an engine boss helping fight wildland fire in Oregon, Morgan said he often supervises inmate hand crews, which he says has been an amazing experience because he’s helping people who are in shoes similar to the ones he used to be in.

Morgan said he was upset when he found out about the Rifle SWIFT program being decommissioned, as he feels it’s the best SWIFT crew in the state and a great benefit to both inmates and the larger Rifle area community.

“It’s so beneficial because it helps keep the cost of fighting fires down and really does teach someone a useful skill they can take to the streets instead of going back to committing crime,” Morgan emphasized. “I know for a fact the state and federal (fire) protection offices around Rifle have the utmost respect for the SWIFT program.”

Ryan McCulley, battalion chief for the Colorado River region of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, voiced respect for the Colorado SWIFT programs. He said he’s worked with all three SWIFT branches over the years and that each hand crew provides high-quality firefighting assistance.

McCulley explained that hand crews are utilized to cut fire lines, or forest breaks cleared to help contain and stop the spread of a wildfire beyond roadways. During the wildfire season, hand crews can sometimes be hard to find, as many are deployed all over the country, McCulley said, so it’s been good to have the SWIFT crews available for Colorado-specific wildfires.

“We can count on them to be there when we need them,” McCulley said. He also mentioned that the SWIFT crews are often cheaper to utilize but emphasized that it’s the quality and reliability of their work that makes the most impact. “They’re a huge benefit to local fire departments and counties across the state.”

This year, because of the COVID-19 crisis, the SWIFT crews are only doing wildfire mitigation and forest-related projects, not helping directly fight fire, Snyder said.

Regardless, crew members like EJ, who has been a part of the Rifle SWIFT program for more than four years, said he just loves the opportunity to be outside and to give back to various Colorado communities.

“I love being out here, out in the open with nature. It’s so beautiful,” EJ said. “It’s really an honor and a privilege to be a part of something bigger and to help other people.”

After EJ is released on parole later this year, he said he plans to pursue a career as a hotshot in California. He said he’s fallen in love with wildland firefighting because it’s shown him his potential as a hard worker and a leader, and hopes that the public can understand how programs like SWIFT can help people better themselves.

“Even though what we did got us here, we’ve taken the step to be on this crew so we don’t make the same mistakes. . We can try to change what we were in the past and be better and this gives us that opportunity to better ourselves and to help ourselves be proud of something,” EJ said of the Rifle SWIFT program. “Instead of being viewed as a failure that committed a crime, we become more than that.”