Washington Firefighters Utilize Inmates to Help Fight Fires - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Washington Firefighters Utilize Inmates to Help Fight Fires

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ELLENSBURG, WA. -- Fire isn't always just destruction and devastation, for some it can be a chance for hope. For example, when firefighters come back to base camp at the Sang Canyon Fire, they need a lot of sustenance to keep going including bottled water. The people who serve them, aren't who you might expect, they're inmates. 

Andy Rikansrud isn't a firefighter, but he is still doing exhausting work at the Snag Canyon fire camp.

"We're serving like 800 people so sometimes I'm getting up at one in the morning," Andy said. "It's busy busy busy. People coming nonstop."

The law caught up with Andy after years of drug abuse. Thanks to the partnership between DNR and the Department of Corrections, he has been able to work on over 20 different fires. Something he says has helped him to rehabilitate his life. 

"It's good to be out," Andy said. "To see that people actually appreciate the work that we're doing. We're not just pieces of dirt. It feels good."

The inmate program has been around since the 50's. Low level offenders are accompanied by corrections officers to fire sites where they do everything from cooking to heavy lifting. They get paid pennies on the dollar but the work is very important 

"Nothing is better than when you have the guys out there and somebody will come up and say 'hey, we appreciate what you're doing,'" Cole Cariker, a DOC Officer said. "We had a lady come up and her family's home was being saved by these guys. And that gives them a big boost."

In places where fire is destroying lives, back in camp, the disaster is allowing inmates to rebuild theirs. 

"It shows me that being a drug dealer wasn't the way to go," Andy said. "That I could actually come out and be a productive member of society and do stuff that I enjoy doing. It gives a guy hope. It really does."

In a way, Andy is his own firefighter, dousing the flames of his past. 

These inmates will stay on hand for weeks, helping firefighters to get what they need to fight these fires. But possibly most importantly, these inmates get a little piece of their normal life back.