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Inmate Overcomes Drugs, Crime, To Become Professional Firefighter

August 28, 2015

By Rachel Thomson

DOC Communications

(Tim Kelly , DOC Communications) DOC inmates gain firefighting experience in prison that helps them find jobs after release. More than 200 offenders now on the fire lines in Washington.

Hyampom, Calif. – David Flynn watched orange flames devour a tree over 100 feet tall. It teetered, dangerously close to toppling onto a roadway. A thick, smoky haze choked the air.

The 6-foot tall firefighter made it past the tree without injury, but he faces similar dangers every day as he helps battle blazes that are currently scorching the western United States. He says driving down remote forest roads at night scare him the most. “You don’t know what could fall, what could hit a tree and knock it loose.”

Despite the dangers, Flynn says there’s nothing he’d rather be doing. “I need this,” Flynn said recently. “This is going to get me back on my feet and where I need to go.”

Flynn, 49, has been in and out of Washington state prisons for the past 20 years. He finished his most recent sentence, for drug and identity theft convictions, in June and was released on community supervision. He credits his experience fighting fires while incarcerated for helping him land work fighting fires since his release. He recently worked with an independent firefighting company in Oregon to fight fires in the Western U.S.

This time around, he’s more determined than ever to stay out of prison. He says fighting fires is what’s keeping him on the straight and narrow.

“This is the bottom line,” Flynn said. “I’m tired of being locked up and I’m tired of not having a relationship with my kids. This is my priority now and nothing&rsquos going to tie me down.”

He’s one of thousands of firefighters battling wildfires across the west. Drought and lightning have escalated wildfire activity this season. To date, 39,254 wildfires have burned nearly 6.4 million acres across the country this year, some of the largest on record. As of last week, Washington led the country as the state with the highest number of active wildfires, followed by Idaho and California.

The Department of Corrections is allowing Flynn to work as a firefighter via a DOC travel permit, though he still must report regularly to his community corrections officer in Chehalis and undergo regular drug testing.

The policy typically allows offenders to travel out of state for 31 days, but the department has continually updated Flynn’s permit to allow him to continue fighting wildfires, according to Corey Archibald, Flynn’s community corrections officer.

“It’s been such a good thing for him (Flynn). If we had denied him this opportunity, it would have been like another door shutting on him and he would’ve gone back to his old ways.”

LANDING THE JOB

Flynn says he worked hard to convince Archibald to allow him to work as a firefighter. At first, he didn’t think he could even apply, because it required long-term, out-of-state travel, and he didn’t have transportation.

So he earned money through numerous odd jobs – working the graveyard shift as a spotter at a retail store’s electrical project, tracking supplies at a warehouse – to buy a used car. He also strove not to incur any new infractions.

Flynn’s work paid off. Archibald allowed Flynn to begin work in May. Since then, Flynn has fought fires in California and Oregon, including the Leslie Gulch fire that incinerated more than 8,000 acres of public land.

Flynn credits the experience he gained during his incarceration for helping him gain the skills needed to become a firefighter. He spent three years training and working with theDepartment of Natural Resources, DNR, correctional camp at Airway Heights Corrections Center.

The DOC has a contract with DNR that allows offenders in correctional work camps to receive wildland firefighter training. Offenders learn fire suppression techniques, like how to use and maintain equipment, identify and remove potential fuel sources. They also learn how weather conditions impact a fire’s ability to spread.

As of Friday, there were 280 offenders from correctional camps deployed at Washington state wildfires, according to Carrie McCausland, a spokeswoman for DNR. This also includes those working in kitchens at mobile camps and three Department of Social and Health Services juvenile offender crews.

EXPANDING OPPORTUNITIES

The DOC wants offenders to be able to use the firefighting experience gained in the minimum security camps with DNR forestry programs to maximize their chances of obtaining employment once they re-enter society.

The Olympic Corrections Center in Forks is working with the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges on a proposal that would allow offenders to use their experience towards earning an accredited certificate, according to OCC Superintendent John Aldana. It’s unclear how soon the board could approve the proposal, but Aldana said having an accredited certificate could help open the door for offenders to receive education and job training in fields such as forestry, environmental science and agriculture.

Currently, offenders in the correctional worker camps can earn state Department of Corrections certificates in Wildland Fire Chainsaws, Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior, Firefighting Training, and Human Factors on the Fire Line through their employment with DNR, Aldana said.

Mark Klemme, a camp manager for DNR’s Northwest Region, helps screen offenders for participation in DNR correctional camps. He says the camps can lead to future job opportunities.

“A lot of guys take to it well and their skills transfer back into the community,” Klemme said. “David is an example of one of the reasons why I do what I do. Our programs make a difference.”

Flynn says he’s proof of that.

Flynn realizes the risks that come with the job, but also loves the rewards.

During a recent visit with his community corrections officer, Flynn got to see his adult children, ages 22 and 25, for the first time in over eight years.

It was a short reunion for Flynn, returned to Hayampom two days later to continue battling the blazes that continue to destroy homes and force residents into evacuation. His departure came less than one week after wildfires in Washington state killed three firefighters in Okanogan County.

“I feel so much better about myself now,” Flynn said. “When people see me, they say ‘Thanks’ and ‘You’re doing a great job.’ It makes you feel proud.”

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