A forest fire crew packs up at the end of a day’s work. Inmates from BC Corrections helped out with a variety of tasks last summer. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

A forest fire crew packs up at the end of a day’s work. Inmates from BC Corrections helped out with a variety of tasks last summer. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

Inmates provide support for wildfire crews

A partnership with the BC Corrections Service gives firefighters much-needed assistance.

Black Press

While most British Columbians know about the heroic work done by B.C. firefighters during this summer’s wildfire season, few probably know that these wildfire-fighting crews were backed up by a team of provincial inmates, who provided vital support to those serving on the front lines.

Throughout the recent provincial state of emergency, a longstanding partnership with the BC Wildfire Service (BCWS) saw inmate crews, under the supervision of BC Corrections staff, ramp up their efforts to help fire crews throughout the province.

The BC Corrections fire suppression program operates out of four correctional centres that work in partnership with the BCWS. This provides participants with meaningful, rewarding work experience, while saving taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars and staff resources.

Crews from Fraser Regional Correctional Centre (FRCC) and Prince George Regional Correctional Centre (PGRCC), under the guidance of BCWS fire camp co-ordinators, set up and took down firefighting base camps, assisted with the inventory of camp-related equipment and supplies, and maintained base camp equipment and facilities.

Crews from Ford Mountain Correctional Centre (FMCC) inspected, tested, and repaired firefighting hand tools, such as axes, suction hoses, shovels, and fire rakes. And crews from Nanaimo Correctional Centre (NCC) repaired, cleaned, and dried thousands of fire hoses from all over the province, which were then returned for re-use by the wildfire service.

Huge savings result from inmates repairing a hose for approximately $15, compared to spending between $120 and $140 to replace a hose. During the 2015 fire season, this NCC program processed almost 30,000 hoses. This season, with extended shifts, it was averaging around 1,300 lengths of hose per week.

Inmates assigned to a crew have “open custody” status, which means they can be trusted to work in the community under supervision. These inmates are selected based on their history, and have performed and behaved exceptionally well during previous experience on other community work crews.

One inmate participant says, “For me, this wasn’t just about making time pass. We got that it was important to a lot of people out there working the fire lines, so that really motivated us to get it done right. Some of the guys even showed up on their days off. Keeping up my work ethic will help when I get out.”

“Most provincial inmates hail from B.C. communities and will return home at some point in the future,” says public safety minister and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth. “In the meantime, even more inmates than in past years rose to the challenge and gave all they could to help British Columbians during the provincial state of emergency.”

The BC Corrections fire suppression program would not be possible without the support of dedicated BC Corrections professionals. Beyond supporting the program, a number of community and custody staff deployed away from their families to help with security, firefighting, and other relief efforts.

The support of inmates and BC Corrections aids the BCWS; and the partnership allows inmates to gain meaningful work experience and give back in a positive way.

Each year, the PGRCC and FRCC crews are available from April through October for immediate call-out to set up and demobilize BCWS camps. Crews have been actively deployed in camp situations for up to 19 consecutive days at any given time.

When no wildfires are burning, inmate crews can deploy to the two BCWS provincial depots in Chilliwack and Prince George. There, they inventory and refurbish fire-camp-related equipment, such as mobile kitchen trailers, washrooms, living quarters, tents, and mobile incident command centres, readying them for quick deployment when needed.

Inmate crews are not involved in firefighting. B.C. wildfirefighters are trained professionals who must pass fitness tests and receive specialized training to qualify for front-line work.

These firefighters can go through 15,000 to 30,000 lengths of hose in an average summer in B.C., but that can reach more than 70,000 in peak years.

Hoses get burned, mangled by heavy equipment, and punctured by tools, which demands quick replacement, cleaning and repair. NCC’s hose program began nearly 30 years ago with washing and drying, and has expanded to include repair, splicing, and intensive testing of a growing volume of hose segments. Relay tank repair and testing has recently been added.

Participating inmates receive between $2 and $8 per day, depending on their tasks, to spend on phone calls and on canteen items like chips and pop.

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