Arizona Healthy Forest Initiative uses inmate fire crews to help clean forest and prevent wildfires

Posted at 8:23 PM, May 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-30 23:23:12-04

2020 went down as one of the worst wildfire seasons on record for Arizona.

With several fires already burning in 2021, Governor Doug Ducey and other state leaders will have more boots on the ground to keep Arizonans safe, thanks to a bill signed earlier this year.

Senate Bill 1442, which is a key part of the Arizona Healthy Forest Initiative, is a step in the right direction to combat wildfires, says Tiffany Davila of Arizona State Forestry.

"It's going to be very beneficial not only to us because it will help us with our project load but it's beneficial to the state of Arizona,” Davila states.

This piece of legislation creates a partnership known as the Arizona Healthy Forest Alliance, linking the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management with the Department of Corrections.

700 inmates from prisons across the state will be working to remove thousands of acres of fire-prone vegetation, significantly reducing the size and severity of wildfires over the course of two years.

The $24.5 million proposal looks to protect the most vulnerable areas while allowing those serving time an opportunity to learn new skills and possibly have a job waiting for them once they’ve served their sentence.

"We know these programs work because we have hand crews now where we have inmates that are on these fuel suppression crews,” Davila states.

There are currently twelve inmate crews participating in wildfire programs. Of the hundreds that went through these programs, thirty post-release inmates were hired by the State of Arizona.

One of those inmates is Krista Countryman, formerly on the Perryville Prison Fire Crew.

After several stints at Perryville, Krista was given the opportunity to change.

"I was asked to be involved and I felt really honored because I have a lot of passion,” Countryman says. “It felt good to start caring about what you were doing and to start caring about being a better person."

Krista was given a chance to contribute to society, but most importantly for her is now being there for her daughter.

"The biggest thing about my life today is that I'm a good mom. I have my daughter back and I live what some think is a normal life, but for me, it's all new and exciting and I'm super grateful and blessed,” she says.