By Jayson Jacoby
For the first summer in almost a decade, inmates from the Powder River Correctional Facility in Baker City will be available to help fight wildfires.
And chances are, they'll be needed.
Fire managers expect this to be an unusually busy season, with drought plaguing much of the West.
Several wildfires have already burned this month in Baker County, some started by lightning, others by people.
Typically, fire season doesn't start until early to mid July.
Thirty inmates from Powder River, a minimum-security prison, are learning firefighting skills this week, said Lisa Jaensch, administrative services manager.
They will be available to work with the Oregon Department of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service.
The 30 inmates will be divided into three crews.
One will be assigned to work on fire lines, one will serve as a support crew, and the 10 members ofthe third crew will be available to fill in for members of either of the two other crews.
For many years after Powder River opened in 1989, inmate crews were qualified to fight fires, and were often dispatched to the fire lines.
That practice ended about seven years ago, Jaensch said.
"During that time, the majority of Powder River's inmates were involved in the New Directions Northwest Alternative Incarceration Program and it became increasingly difficult for them to meet the requirements of the program and be involved in fighting fires," Jaensch said.
"Powder River's inmate population has changed and now houses a majority of general population inmates and therefore we have a larger pool of inmate labor to pull from."
The prison can house a maximum of 286 inmates.
Brad Cain, who was recently promoted to Powder River superintendent, wanted to restart the inmate firefighter program.
During a previous job, at the Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario, Cain was responsible for inmate fire crews.
"When he promoted to superintendent at Powder River he brought with him numerous resources and programs that are of great benefit to our staff, the inmates and the community as a whole, one of them being the knowledge and skills that it takes to dispatch a wild land fire crew and camp support from within the institution," Jaensch said.
Training inmates, besides giving state and federal agencies another source of manpower during fire season, can potentially help inmates after they're released by giving them a marketable skill.
Agencies pay a daily fee for inmate crews. Jaensch did not have the fee amount.