New program helps fire mitigation and adds inmates to fight fires across Colorado

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STATEWIDE — Wildfire mitigation is a big topic for Colorado state after an increase in devastating wildfires in the past few years. As of 2021, more money has been put aside to create partnerships between state agencies to keep mitigation ongoing and add more to the front lines.

In a partnership with The Colorado Department of Natural resources (DNR), the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC), and Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) the new Colorado Strategic Wildfire Action Program will help keep fire mitigation year-round.

Dan Gibbs, executive director of DNR, said that the state is in crisis mode when it comes to fires.

“Wildfires don’t know the difference between federal, state, private, or tribal lands, and we need to have a management strategy that reflects that,” Gibbs said.

The Wildfire Action Program created from the $30 million Senate Bill 21-258 will allocate $17.5 million in federal stimulus funds for the next three years to increase the size of the State Wildland Inmate Fire Team (SWIFT), which uses low-risk inmates from several prisons around the state.

Cody Wigner, CPW Area Wildlife Manager for the Pikes Peak Region, said it’s a win-win for everyone.

“To be able to partner and utilize these resources. And from our perspective, it’s great on the wildlife resource. So really, this is going to be able to enhance wildlife habitat,” Wigner said.

DOC executive director Dean Williams said that since 2002, SWIFT has helped fight fires on the sidelines and helped 50 inmates find jobs in the firefighting industry.

Four Mile Correctional Center SWIFT team

“What I felt like we have needed to grow this program is this kind of partnership and collaboration we have right now,” Williams said.

Currently, 95 inmates are members of SWIFT, but the additional funding would increase that number to 160 inmates on the team.

“This is the best job in prison. 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,” Kevin Payton, Four Mile Correctional Center in Cañon City inmate said.

The program pays inmates for their work and gives them a job opportunity at the end of their sentence.

“These folks are all going to be our neighbors again, right? And getting out and having purpose and having purpose while you’re serving your time and being able to give back is everything,” Williams said.

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