february 2016
Joshua Daniel Bligh (third from left) with crew members.

by Joshua Daniel Bligh

“Wow, man,” said the contract firefighter, handing me a one-inch lateral hose from his engine. “I can’t believe you guys make only six bucks a day! And you guys are the hardest working crews out here.”

We had been mopping up the Stouts Creek fire for two weeks. A wildfire in Southern Oregon caused by a lawnmower that had scorched 26,367 acres. We have been working side-by-side with contract and government fire crews in an effort to suppress one of the biggest fires Oregon saw in the 2015 fire season. We were exhausted from the 14 hour days, rough, near vertical terrains, and light, fitful sleep.

I took the lateral hose and the reducers from the young, thin faced engine crew boss who reluctantly admitted to making 300 dollars a day (at this point in the fire). My face, smeared with dirt and ash from the hot-spot we were mucking out with hand-tools for the past hour, had to grin at his embarrassment.

We were dressed the same. We both wore Nomex, the standard yellow long sleeved shirts. We had Pulaskis, McClouds, Hazel Hoes and BAMFs. We punched in miles of hand-line, sometimes two feet or less from the flames. We lived at fire camp with the civilian and government crews. We worked side-by-side with them on the fire line. We grid, we potato patch. We dropped hazardous snags with Stihl 044s. We were called from district to district for an array of assignments at the behest of the Incident Commander. We ate the same food, under the same tent. In a sense, we were the same. But at the same time very different. I took the hardware he handed me and returned down the hill to the two other inmate crew members who awaited water support. Several minutes later there was a crater under the smoldering tree stump and a ice mud-cap where embers once existed.

I fought fire for the Oregon Department of Corrections partnered with Oregon Department of Forestry for two seasons while serving a four year prison sentence for assault. While aware of the pathetic little money we were making risking our lives and working our fingers to the bone, I learned valuable skills and through the experience was able to feel like I was giving back to the society which by my actions had wronged, and removed myself from. When I sense outrage and shock in the faces of the contract crews who hear how little we make for the work we do, I remember that I could have been sitting in a prison cell in the penitentiary. I think a lot of inmate firefighters feel the same way. We work hard because we are grateful. We work had because we are fallen and in need of redemption in the eyes of our community. We work hard because we were given the opportunity to. We work hard not because we can support our families with the income but support the mentality we will need if we are to make it when we are released back into society as a ex-convict, a disadvantaged minority group.

I was selected to be a forestry worker in 2012 while housed at Deer Ridge Correctional Institution due to my minimum custody status and health. During the off-season we aided the state in their efforts at fuel reduction. We thinned the forest around Bend and Sisters making slash piles and in the winter, burnt them. When May rolled around a group of seasoned ODF firefighters came in and trained us in the same manner as civilian firefighters. We take a pack test. We learn the use of drip-torches, fusees, and hand-tools (and I soon learned my tool of choice was the Pulaski because of it’s multi-purpose).

My first fire was the Pole Creek fire in Sisters, Oregon. A conflagration that scorched 26,000 acres of dry, conifer forests and manzanita bush. We were on that fire for twenty-one days. Then I took two years off of fire-fighting while dealing with court issues, but I joined up again to fight fire in the 2015 season. This season saw a rash of wildfires in Oregon and we were deployed to over 15 fires.

What inspires me the most about wildland firefighting is the sense of finding oneself pitted against a life-or-death obstacle. Mustering the courage to push oneself to his or her mental and physical limit. You discover things inside yourself that you didn’t know you possessed, working along the other guys who are discovering the same things. I imagine soldiers in war must feel the same bond. And in prison, where camaraderie is in short supply or severely distorted, it is truly inspiring to work together on the fireline. And the greatest joy is the chance to be appreciated, to feel normal for a week or two.

Inmate fire crews carry with them a sense of pride in the midst of much shame. It becomes a balancing act, a foot in the right direction of restoring our image. I have been out of prison for a little under a month and I plan on joining up with a contract crew this summer an making some real money. I feel thankful for the experience and the skills I received this summer. So next time you encounter inmate firefighters on the fire-line, and they ask you for a can of chew or a cigarette, forgive us. We are just trying to feel normal.

The future looks bright. I was released from prison in November and plan to pursue firefighting this summer as a means for sating the adventure bug and supporting my two children. It will be an opportunity to work hard, get paid, and do something positive for the people who make their homes in the Pacific Northwest. It is an opportunity to carry the skills I have learned and apply them this side of the razor wire.

Joshua Daniel Bligh with his daughter.