Inmates Helped Fight The Fire

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Sgt. Augustine Ballesteros knows the rehabilitative value of allowing inmates to work as firefighters as a crew did for 10 days of the Willow Fire.

"I've seen inmates change in front of my eyes," Ballesteros said. "They go from kind of quiet and in the background to taking leadership and learning how to work as part of a team. That's something some never learned."

The crew in Payson was from the Arizona State Prison Douglas Complex.

To Ballesteros' way of thinking, firefighting also allows the inmates to give back to society rather than take from it as they've done much of their lives.

"They gain a lot of self respect by doing it," he said. "It was very rewarding for them."

While fighting the Willow, the 20 inmates in the Douglas crew lived at the Houston Mesa base camp alongside hundreds of other firefighters assigned to the fire.

"For the first two days, no one there even knew they were inmates," Ballesteros said.

The inmates thrive on being treated as equals as they were during their stint fighting the Willow, he said.

The team spent most of its working hours building fire lines near Pine, Strawberry and around the Willow.

If the fire had made a run towards Pine and Strawberry as some had anticipated, it was the inmates' work that could have saved the two communities from total destruction.

According to Ballesteros, the inmates were told early in their stay what their work could eventually mean. They took the challenge seriously.

"We never had a problem. There was no bickering or anything like that," he said. "They are all hard workers."

The job of three supervisors assigned to the crew was simply to be sure the inmates followed wildland safety precautions.

"There's no need for strict supervision. We just see that they all work good and safe together," Ballesteros said.

According to Cam Hunter of the Arizona State Department of Corrections, positions on one of the four DOC firefighting crews in Arizona are prized by the inmates.

"We only pay 50 cents an hour, but we have 31,000 inmates and only 119 are on the crews," she said.

The popularity of becoming a firefighter, Ballesteros said, is probably because the job allows the firefighters the opportunity to learn some of life's tough lessons. It also gives them a chance to learn an occupation they might take up after being released.

To become a firefighter, an inmate must be within three years of release and must be serving time for non-violent crimes.

Some of those fighting the Willow were in prison for crimes like drug possession, auto theft and burglary.

Once selected, they undergo the same training as all wildland firefighters. Each year, they take refresher courses and update their training.

The supervisors also must undergo extensive training in basic firefighting, crew leadership and weather/fire behavior.

According to Department of Corrections records, the inmate crews have been called out more than 30 times this year.

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