Blasts of heat and the stench of burnt ozone and timber assailed David Schmidt as soon as he stepped out of the fire buggy. The blaze wasn’t far away. Around him, wildland firefighters in yellow shirts and green pants prepped their gear: They checked chainsaws and reviewed the contents of heavy packs. Schmidt pulled his radio out of its holster to ensure it was operational then tugged on his red helmet, conveying his status as a leader. At six-foot-four, Schmidt towered over most of the men, but his affable nature endeared him to them.
“Circle up,” crew boss Todd Snyder said. Twenty men lined up, and all talk ceased. Snyder outlined the details: The Beaver Creek fire, which would become Colorado’s largest blaze of 2016, was ripping through huge stands of beetle-kill trees. Eventually it would claim 38,380 acres and 17 structures. Schmidt listened intently, anticipation mingling with pride. Surrounded by the other firefighters, he felt a sense of shared dignity. No one here cared that earlier that day he’d woken up inside the Rifle Correctional Center.
Colorado, like most Western states, is facing an epidemic of devastating wildfires. The 20 biggest blazes in state history all occurred after 2000—including the 54,000-acre 416 fire near Durango and the massive Spring Creek fire, which claimed more than 140 buildings near Fort Garland, both in 2018. This summer, experts predict Colorado will see more than 4,500 fires, consuming 100,000 acres of land. The state has no full-time crews dedicated to fighting these wildland fires. Instead it relies on seasonal help, assistance from the 375 county and municipal fire departments spread throughout Colorado (which are sure to be taxed by the continuing presence of the novel coronavirus), and men like Schmidt who are part of the State Wildland Inmate Fire Team (SWIFT).
Established in 2002 as a volunteer Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) program, SWIFT has crews that operate out of the male-only Rifle, Buena Vista, and Cañon City prisons. Each year, between 70 and 95 inmates fight as many as 25 fires. Hundreds apply from facilities around the state for spots on the SWIFT crews, but only a few are selected to join the teams annually. Composed of nonviolent offenders, SWIFT accepts only model prisoners: They must be eligible for parole in no more than three years, have clean records as inmates, pass a physical fitness test, and get final signoff from their wardens.
Colorado isn’t the only state with inmate fire crews. Currently, about 20 other states have similar teams. California’s program is by far the most robust, with more than 3,000 men and women participating (six of whom have died fighting blazes since 1983). In the almost two decades since Colorado’s program was established, about 2,250 male inmates have joined SWIFT crews. The teams have battled more than 750 fires, including the Four Mile Canyon, Lower North Fork, and Waldo Canyon fires, and have saved the state millions in firefighting costs. That’s largely because of pay; whereas a seasonal wildland firefighter earns about $145 per day, SWIFT crew members typically make about $6.
Inmates also get a day off their sentences for each day spent on a fire assignment. Schmidt knocked about a year off his six-and-a-half-year sentence (for felony menacing and criminal mischief) as a member of the Rifle SWIFT team. The program aims to give prisoners more than just time off for good behavior, though. SWIFT aspires to equip inmates with skills that will aid their transition from incarceration and also lower recidivism. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.
When Schmidt arrived at the low-risk wing of Sterling Correctional Facility, the state’s largest prison, he was lonely, lost, and a little angry. “I felt like the system had stuck it to me,” he says. “I knew that I had kind of screwed myself by my actions, but I still was upset. I didn’t know anyone, was locked in a small room, and had no idea what the next day would bring.”
The Littleton native had led a fairly un-remarkable life until his conviction in February 2013. He’d been a decent student and athlete growing up and held a series of jobs, from fitness trainer to security guard, in his twenties. For fun he rode his motorcycle into the mountains and hiked. “I was like a lot of [people], kind of lost; I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” he says. Then he lost his temper during a breakup with a girlfriend and threatened to harm her and her daughter. By the time he got to Sterling, Schmidt just wanted to keep his head down. He found a mentor in an older man who spent time with others wanting to keep out of trouble, and he learned about the SWIFT program from them.
It took Schmidt two tries to make it into SWIFT. When he moved to Rifle to meet his new team, he felt an instant kinship. Housed in their own area, the firefighters were dedicated. When not deployed, the SWIFT team spent all of its time working out, prepping gear, practicing skills, and training. Gone was the usual static of prison—the gangs, the drugs, the other temptations. The team policed itself. Part of the reason was self-preservation: If any member stumbled, he was tossed from the program, which could mean no deployments for anyone. The other reason was pride. “There was an incredible sense of comradeship, that everyone had each other’s back,” Schmidt says. “There also was a sense of normalcy, that we were not pieces of shit who had screwed up. We were giving back to the communities that we had hurt, and they were thanking us for it when we were out.”
Schmidt embraced the long hours and days spent outside. His work ethic and skills didn’t go unnoticed: He made connections with firefighters from across the country who offered encouragement and complimented him and his team. Snyder, a DOC employee who oversees the Rifle team, saw promise in the inmate. As Schmidt’s parole date approached in March 2017, Snyder reached out to the Craig Hot Shots crew on Schmidt’s behalf. Schmidt spoke with two crew bosses several times. He’d been warned that post-prison employment as a firefighter was a long shot, but he couldn’t help hoping.
Emblazoned on the side of each SWIFT truck is the program’s motto: “We Build Opportunity.” Given the post-prison placement rate, though, the catchphrase seems to be more than a little misplaced. “As far as I know, fewer than five graduates from the SWIFT program have successfully landed a full-time job with a fire department in Colorado,” says Garry Briese, executive director of the Colorado State Fire Chiefs.
The stigma of a felony closes a lot of doors for parolees, but especially for firefighters who are seeking positions in what studies have historically shown to be one of the most trusted professions in America. This past year’s successful “ban the box” measure signed by Governor Jared Polis, which prohibits employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal history in an initial job application, removes only the first hurdle for former prisoners.
For SWIFT alumni, other roadblocks—like parole restrictions and the discretion of parole officers—still stand between them and a job. For example, after he was released, Schmidt was required to stay within a three-mile radius of his parents’ house (where he was living), not venture out at night, and be available for urine analysis for the duration of his 27-month probation. The restrictions made it difficult to travel to Craig for an interview—never mind spending weeks at a time out on fires. Schmidt’s parole officer recommended early release, but his appeal was denied by superiors.
Further, the state’s own rules make hiring a SWIFT graduate for seasonal work impossible. Under the Colorado Department of Fire Prevention and Control’s strict hiring standards, a felony is disqualifying, a fact that irritates Briese. “It comes down to a question of whether these individuals have paid the price for their crimes and are allowed to become members of our society,” he says.
Some states have already answered that question. In 2017, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey ordered the creation of Phoenix Crew 1, the first post-release wildland fire crew in the nation. As state employees, the 20 full-time firefighters receive full benefits packages and competitive wages and have a built-in support group. Little wonder Phoenix Crew 1’s three-year recidivism rate is well below the national average of 49.7 percent—only about five percent of its members have gone back to prison. California also recently launched an 18-month program, at the Ventura Training Center, to provide advanced firefighter training to released felons that qualifies them as certified responders with active resumés.
Briese, for one, would welcome similar programs in Colorado. He notes that applications for firefighting positions have dropped dramatically in recent years. The rigorous vetting process (physical tests, lie detector screenings, and, in some cases, EMT qualification) eliminates a lot of candidates, as does the nature of the work. “It’s a hard job with long hours that scares many people off,” he says. “It makes no sense to me that we would not look at SWIFT as a way to land good, fully trained people.”
The Colorado Department of Corrections’ new executive director might offer some hope to men like Schmidt. Dean Williams has long been an advocate of prison reforms that better prepare inmates for life beyond bars. “If you hit the streets with nothing to lose, then you have nothing to lose,” he says. “But if you have something to lose, then that’s a whole new story. We have to set post-release inmates up so that they will hopefully succeed when out.”
Shortly after taking office in January 2019, Williams launched the Take TWO (Transitional Work Opportunity) Program, which allows low-risk inmates near the ends of their sentences to work full time outside prison for regular wages. It eases reintegration into society, helps them earn money, builds their resumés, and hopefully leads to job offers upon release. Before the novel coronavirus, the Take TWO Program was set to expand to more than 100 inmates, many of whom would work for the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Williams supports the intention behind the Arizona post-release firefighting program, too. “I am open to any and all ideas to help these SWIFT team members,” he says. “If we could find a [department] to partner with, we would be open to discussing it.” Of course, in the era of COVID-19, Williams is busy simply trying to manage the spread of the virus among Colorado’s 30,000 inmates. So, despite his enthusiasm, it’s likely plans for any Phoenix-style program are on hold for now.
Meanwhile, the $3,500 worth of fire gear Schmidt bought when he got out of prison sits neatly folded inside a closet in his parents’ Littleton home. It’s been three years since he was released, and he has managed to get on just one fire, in 2018, as a part-time hire. Instead, Schmidt has worked at Whole Foods and Walgreens and done a few other odd jobs, often for minimum wage, to get by. At 38, he is approaching the age limit for many wildland fire teams. “It took me going to prison to find my passion, something I could dedicate my life to,” he says. “I am beginning to wonder if it will ever happen.”
Hudson Lindenberger is a Boulder-based writer whose work has also appeared in Men’s Journal, Elevation Outdoors, and Fatherly. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org