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Firefighting Program Offers Juvenile Inmates A Chance To Give Back

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Inmates of the Naselle Youth Camp work at the Blue Lake Fire in Walla Walla, Wash.

Among the first firefighters on the scene when wildfires broke out in eastern Washington this summer was a crew of juveniles — inmates, actually. The crew, teens aged 15 to 19, were building fire lines and digging trenches. Hard work, in difficult conditions.

Last month, one teenager escaped from the work camp and later shot himself during a standoff with police. He has since recovered.

The program, however, may not. One of the few of its kind in the country, it is now under review.

Spencer Mooers, acting-associate superintendent of the Naselle Youth Camp, a state juvenile prison on the coast of Washington, says inmates in the program went through training before working the fires.

"They have the exact same level of certification that any other person that's out there has," Mooers tells NPR's Rachel Martin.

"Our duties tend to be cutting fire line [and] doing mop-up activity — so after the fire burns through an area, they go back and hit any of the hot spots and make sure that the fire's out and not going to get going again," he explains.

He says most of the participants are disappointed that the program was halted.

"It's kind of a privilege to participate, and most of the kids kind of want to," he says.

Local news station KOMO reports that the juveniles in the work program were monitored 24 hours a day, and that the gun used by the escaped inmate was stolen the same night from a vehicle in the area.

Interview Highlights

On the inmates at Naselle Youth Camp

The kids that we have have a high percentage of drug and alcohol issues, we have a pretty high prevalence of mental issues. It's kind of heartbreaking. We have kids that, you know, every kind of bad story that you hear about, stuff that happens to kids, we have have those kids here, too.

On giving inmates vocational training

Most of the kids enjoy the experience. They're busy, so they're not just sitting around. We really want to try and get you to have a positive experience — catch up in school, have some vocational opportunities — and then return to your home community and kind of move on, kind of get past this point in your life.

On the value of the firefighting program

When I see a picture that we have of the kids over in Walla Walla [Wash.], they're standing in a semi-circle, and the local community's come in and they're handing out ice cream bars to those kids. I think the ability to be seen as a positive force, when so many of them have had the experience of not being seen in that light, it's something they can kind of say, "I gave back to the community."

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