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Colorado upping wildfire strategy with inmate help

Department of Corrections SWIFT crew
Posted at 9:38 PM, Nov 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-17 07:42:33-05

TELLER COUNTY — The growing threat of wildfires in Colorado is behind a new initiative called the Strategic Wildfire Action Program.

"Senate Bill 258, that really created a game changer for Colorado,” said Colorado Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Dan Gibbs. The legislation, supported by Governor Jared Polis, focused state funding and resources on better strategies for combating the wildfire issue.

An important emphasis is increased collaboration and sharing resources. “[Wildfires] don’t know the difference between federal, state, private or tribal lands,” said Gibbs, “We need to have a management strategy that reflects that with everyone coming together.”

A collaboration with the Colorado Department of Corrections is underway and showing success. "Expanding the SWIFT crew is good for us (Colorado) and it’s good for them [inmates]," said Department of Corrections, Executive Director, Dean Williams. SWIFT stands for State Wildland Inmate Fire Team. Inmates fighting fires is not new, but the new legislation makes way for expansion and improvements.

“It’s the best job in prison,” said SWIFT Squad Boss Kevin Payton. Inmates serving time for non-violent offenses work to qualify for this job program. "Literally saved lives, have protected infrastructure, and protected properties," said Payton. It is something to do, skills are learned, they also see the value in community service. "A sense of almost like a direction of a way I want to go in life," said Tyler Ben who is on the SWIFT crew.

Corrections Executive Director, Williams praises the men in the program for their desire to improve themselves and serve while doing time for mistakes they made. He sees the state’s new wildfire strategy as an opportunity to bring more inmates into the program. Part of his push also included getting a pay raise to help the inmates on the path to release and re-entry into regular society. “Paying them more so when they get out, they have money,” said Williams, “When you get out you need to have finances, you need to have money in the bank.” Raises were approved, although the wage is minimum wage for Squad Bosses and less for others on the team.

The number of SWIFT crew members will increase from 70 to 160. They are certified to fight fires and they will now be increasing mitigation efforts.