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Inmate Crews Celebrated For Work On Summer Fires

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network

This summer’s Carlton Complex wildfire was the largest in Washington history. Scores of firefighters battled the inferno in north Central Washington.

Among them were prison inmates assigned to the Department of Natural Resources.

Those inmate crews were honored Thursday at a ceremony at Cedar Creek Corrections Center.

William Criss didn’t need his fire shelter this summer. But he and his fellow inmate firefighters had an extremely close call on the Carlton Complex fire.

“It was really scary,” Criss said. “Probably the scariest moment I’ve had in my life.”

A back burn they were working to contain blew back over them when the winds shifted.

Inmate firefighter Christopher Hindermann was there that day too. He described a 300-foot whirl of fire.

“All of us ran down the hill,” Hindermann recalled. “A couple of the guys were right in the flames.”

Everyone escaped unharmed -- but barely.

“It was really extreme. It was dangerous,” Hindermann said. “Probably something I’ll never forget.”

This 10-man crew is one of 29 inmate firefighting crews in Washington. All of them were deployed to fires this summer. Some went on multiple deployments. They worked alongside professional firefighters for 50-cents an hour. Other inmate crews cooked tens-of-thousands of meals on the fire lines.

State lands commissioner Peter Goldmark said these inmates were indispensable in a year when fires raged across the west and crews were spread thin.

“We were scraping the bottom of the barrel for resources and we’re very grateful for this vital labor force,” he said.

To get on a firefighting crew, inmates have to be within four years of their release date and meet other qualifications.

Hindermann is serving time for drug manufacturing. He said it felt good to do something decent for the community. But he also said after two 16-day stints on the Carlton Complex they were exhausted.

“You’d never think someone would say ‘hey let’s get back to prison so we can get some rest,’ but we were hoping for a break,” Hindermann said.

Fire crews from Cedar Creek Corrections Center logged 35,000 hours on the fire lines this summer.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."