Incarcerated people are fighting Colorado’s wildfires — including this week’s Kruger Rock Fire

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Dan Boyce/CPR News
From left, SWIFT crew members Tyler Ben, Joshuwa Mack, Michael Estrada and Dusty Barben pause during work on a wildfire mitigation pilot project at Dome Rock State Wildlife Area on Oct. 16th, 2021.

A law passed by the Colorado Legislature is helping expand the scope of wildland fire mitigation efforts in the state, including nearly doubling the size of a team of prison inmates specially trained in reducing fuels in communities at high risk of wildfires. 

The Colorado Strategic Wildfire Action Program was created this year in response to the record-breaking 2020 fire season. It uses dollars from a $700 million dollar state stimulus plan intended to spur the Colorado economy post-pandemic. 

“We’re really at crisis mode in the state of Colorado,” said Colorado Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Dan Gibbs. He applauded the bi-partisan passage of the funding bill. On top of bolstering pre-existing wildfire mitigation programs, it deploys hand crews from the Colorado Youth Corps and Department of Corrections to thin fuels — dry brush and areas overgrown with dead trees — in wildfire-prone regions of the state.

Corrections started its State Wildland Inmate Fire Teams, or SWIFT, program in 2002 and they have responded to some of the state’s largest disasters since — from major floods in Northern Colorado to the more recent Cameron Peak and Morgan Creek fires. Nearly 100 inmates currently work on the SWIFT crews, with DOC hoping to bump that number up to 160 in coming months.

A SWIFT crew was thinning fuels at a pilot project for the new program Dome Rock State Wildlife Area near Florissant on Tuesday. Crew members worked in clusters, using chainsaws to take apart dead and dying trees. The area near Florissant borders a large number of remote private homes. Local elected officials and state agency executives observed their progress before speaking to reporters. 

“This is the best job in prison,” said SWIFT crew team leader Kevin Payton. “It’s the highest paying job, it gives us the best opportunity to get home to our families sooner. It gives us something to be proud of.”

Dean Williams, executive director of the corrections department, said the SWIFT crews are made up of low-risk, nonviolent offenders and expanding the program benefits both the state and the incarcerated individuals on the crews. 

“These folks are all gonna be our neighbors again, right? And getting out and having purpose while you’re serving your time and being able to give back is everything,” Williams said. The bill passed this year triples the pay for the inmates, to $40 a day for members in their first season.

SWIFT crew member Michael Estrada has only been in prison six months. He said he’s serving seven years after accidentally hitting and killing a man with his car in Colorado Springs. When he was told he qualified for a SWIFT crew, he got involved as quickly as he could. The former professional welder said the handful of times he’s been out in the field with the SWIFT crew has inspired him to work toward shifting his career to firefighting when he gets out of prison. 

“I like it, it’s in me because I love the outdoors,” Estrada said. “It’s being around the good people, they have your back, it’s like a family pretty much.”

Shortly after the group spoke to reporters at the Dome Rock pilot project, Tuesday, the SWIFT crew was called up to Estes Park to assist in fighting the Kruger Rock fire.