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Washington state is expanding its inmate wildfire crews

The state is training prison inmates to potentially help crews respond to wildfires.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Despite a wet July, the state is preparing for a busy late summer, and perhaps early fall wildfire season.

As a result, the state is training an additional 20 prison inmates to potentially respond to wildfires.

“The work these guys do is absolutely phenomenal,” said Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Forest Crew Supervisor Bob Lund.

Lund has worked with inmates for the past 10 years. He said they work hard and rarely act out.

“They actually have a lot to lose,” Lund said. “We could potentially put five years on their sentences, no problem.”

Also see | Wildfire risk expected to rise after Washington 'blessed' by cool, wet July

To qualify, an inmate must have less than four years remaining on their sentence. They must have a record of good behavior and cannot have prior arson convictions.

DNR views the crews as a cost-efficient way to fight fires. The minimum wage for an inmate is $1.50 an hour. The maximum is $2.50.

“It’s really going to be beneficial to everybody,” said inmate Ben Kessler.

Kessler is serving a four-year sentence for ID theft and stealing cars. He’s fought fires for the state every summer he’s been locked up.

When he’s released next year he hopes to use his experience to get a similar job, but for better pay.

“It’s been a really good feeling. It’s a positive thing in our lives to be a contributing factor back to society,” Kessler said.

Also see | How to build a wildfire defensible space around your home