North Carolina Department of Correction News - May 1999

BRIDGE program recruiting inmates to fight fires

Morganton — Who does the Forest Service call when they need the best-trained, hardest working fire-fighting crews? The inmates working in the BRIDGE program. The only trouble is, the number of inmates available to work has nearly dropped in half.

As forest fires raged out of control in several western counties in mid-April, Blue Ridge Youth Center and the minimum unit at Western Youth Institution only had 30 BRIDGE inmates to dispatch. At the worst fire, an inmate described the 30 to 40-foot flames as cresting over the tops of trees in Wilkes County. An inmate crew working there was credited with saving ten homes. They worked 15-hour days cutting fire lines by sawing a four-foot swath of brush to stop the fires.

The BRIDGE (Building, Rehabilitating, Instructing, Developing, Growing and Employing) Program competes for inmates with other programs such as the boot camps and drug rehabilitation centers. So, during one of the busiest weeks in the fire season, Division of Forest Resource managers Keith Suttles, Dale Brittain and Travis Ruff invited program directors and diagnostic staff from three youth centers, Polk, Morrison and Bladen to see the program in action.

The group of seven saw the living quarters for BRIDGE crews at Western Youth Institution and Blue Ridge Youth Center. They were taken to the Asheville and Hickory helitack ports to see the firefighting planes and helicopters that crews work from. They met inmates from the fire-fighting crews who had been fighting the fires, and they were taken to South Mountain State Park and Mount Mitchell State Park to see the kinds of labor-intensive trail-building work the inmates do when they are not fighting fires.

Details of the program gave the seven correction employees a better idea of who in their prisons might qualify for the fire-fighting crews. Heather Watkins from Polk Youth Institution realized she could have sent someone with a six-month sentence to the program after learning BRIDGE will take inmates with at least three months left on their sentences. Other members of the group, Teresa McGowan and Drew Stanley from Polk, Danny Crowley and Deborah Ballard from Morrison, and Butch McMillan and Joe Abbott from Bladen, all said this gave them a better idea of who they could send and promised they would help fill the empty beds.

The group saw firsthand how being in good physical shape is a top requirement. While building trails, crew members haul heavy timbers up steep mountain trails for long distances. After mountain floods swept away foot bridges to people's homes last year in Watauga County, BRIDGE crews built 40 new ones.

"These inmates are exposed to a lot of different experiences, painting, fighting fires and planting trees," Brittain said. "I tell them a day's work isn't going to kill them. In the first month they act like a typical inmate, dragging around. After they've been doing this hard labor, they get to feeling good about themselves and that's a new feeling to them. They don't know what it is."

Suttles told the group the Forest Service has become very dependent on the BRIDGE program. "We want the same inmates everyone else wants, the level two's who haven't caused much trouble," Suttles said. ‘Once they get into the program, the crew members police themselves."

BRIDGE crews are given the same training as forestry service workers, and sometimes correctional officers go through training along with the inmates.

A DOC patch on forest service uniforms identifies the seven correctional officers who work with the BRIDGE crew. One officer, Mike Estep, told the visiting group that when fires are raging, they have to pitch in to fight the fires in addition to supervising the inmate crew.

"We have a lot of responsibility, having to keep an eye on these guys and make sure they don't get burned up," Estep said. "Fire runs 16 times faster up a slope, and it's harder to get to, especially with hand equipment."

Inmates use such fire-fighting tools as fire rakes, bladder bags, axes and fire flappers. Inmates train to fast rope out of a helicopter off a 40-foot tower at BRIDGE headquarters in Morganton.

"In my opinion, it's the best program in the state, and it makes these guys feel real good about themselves," Estep said. A former crew member called Estep to say he appreciated what he'd done for him, and he is now making $15 an hour cutting timber for a company.

When fires aren't raging, both prisons have carpentry shops where the inmates saw their own lumber, make picnic tables for local churches and tree signs for the parks and perform other wood-working tasks.

Brittain and Suttles told the seven touring youth center employees they depended on their insight as to an inmate=s track record in prison, and if they had any doubts, to please call them.

"When they raised the ages up to 21 at Western and up to 25 at Blue Ridge, that helped us a whole lot," Brittain said.

Fire season starts in October and runs through mid-May. u

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