Crews of juvenile inmates have been sent to fight wildfires in Washington state since the 1960s.
Until a teen escaped last week, assaulted a supervisor and then shot himself, there were 20 youth working on the fire line at the Chelan Complex Fire in central Washington. Another crew of 10 made sandwiches and meals in Okanogan County.
Their mission: Make sandwiches, dig trenches and build fire lines to keep flames at bay. They can pull 16-hour shifts and earn between 70 cents and $1.60 an hour. The youngest are 15; the eldest, 20.
“The kids go to fires all over the state,” said David Griffith of the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration in Olympia. “It’s something they want to do.”
Griffith said last week’s incident was an aberration, although juvenile inmates have tried to escape before. He hails the program and said there are no plans to cancel it.
“You can’t take one experience or one incident and end the whole program,” he said. “It’s tragic, in that two people got harmed. So we certainly have to do an incident review, see if there’s something we missed so that we don’t end up in a situation like that.”
On Thursday night, the day after three firefighters were killed in Twisp, a 16-year-old inmate left the camp. He assaulted a female supervisor and then prowled a car, where he found a .22 caliber revolver.
When authorities caught up with him near a highway the next day, he pulled out the gun and pointed it at his head. After some back and forth conversation, the boy shot himself. He survived and was sent to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
Last week, the fire crews were pulled from the lines. They won’t return during this fire season as the state examines the program.
Phil Jans, the administrator for the Chelan County Juvenile Center, said he was surprised when he heard teenagers were fighting wildfires.
“That it’s a wildfire, that’s a little scary. It would cause me a little concern. But you have to weigh that against the benefits,” Jans said. “You can’t just play it safe all the time, lock them in and make them do the time.”
That’s the calculus Griffith makes. “Keeping the youth locked up is not going to help them change,” he said. “They get great skills – how to listen to rules, how to get along with a crew, safety training,” he said.
Incarcerated adults also fight the fires – Griffith said four or five prisons in Washington state send adult crews. California also sends juvenile inmates into the wildlands.
There are fewer teen firefighters in Washington state than in the past, when six juvenile correctional facilities sent crews. Now there’s just one – Naselle Youth Camp near Long Beach on the Washington coast. It's remote, and on the roads nearby are signs telling motorists not to pick up teens on the road.
The juvenile firefighters are part of a year-round forestry program with the state’s Department of Natural Resources. Most of the year they work in the woods, clearing brush, but during fire season, they go through 40 hours of training to be able to head out to the fires. It’s voluntary, considered a perk. Parents don’t have to consent.
“If a family objected to the idea, we would take that into consideration, but most of the time, they’re very supportive,” Griffith said.
The juvenile fire crews are all male now, although there used to be girl crews in Washington. The Associated Press followed an all-girl fire crew in 2002, describing their first shot at extinguishing a fire.
They went to a 100-acre fire near Spokane – not big by wildfire standards, but it was threatening several homes.
[Crystal] Horne, who is from Kelso, said people gave the all-girl crew some odd looks, but they quickly proved themselves by extinguishing all the hot spots in their area.
"Everyone was really surprised," she said.
"When they realized just seven girls did all that work, they were like, 'wow.'"
Griffith said that there have been few accidents, and that smoke inhalation from the wildfires – a common problem for wildland firefighters – hasn’t been an issue for the youth.
“We haven’t had kids come back with long-term residual things other than sore muscles,” Griffith said. “There have been sprained ankles or work with chain saws – some minor accidents with that. DNR operates a safe program. They understand the limitations of a 16-year-old.”