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Inmate firefighters help battle Georgia wildfires
Georgia Wildfires I 7188244
Georgia Department of Corrections inmate firefighter Flint Walker and the rest of his rake crew dig out hot spots behind the Swamp Road Baptist Church in Waycross, Ga., to prevent them from flaring up again two weeks after the now historic fire outside the city swept through behind the church, Wednesday, May 2, 2007. As part of a team of 830 firefighters from across Georgia and neighboring states, the inmates have been working 12-hour days. - photo by Associated Press
WAYCROSS, Ga. — In the week he’s spent fighting the vast wildfire in southeast Georgia, Gino Fisher still can’t get used to local residents stopping to shake his hand, pat him on the back and offer hot meals and snacks.
    ‘‘For a few minutes, you don’t feel like an inmate anymore,’’ said Fisher, who’s serving a five-year sentence for check forgery at Lee State Prison in Leesburg, about 120 miles east.
    Fisher, 34, is also a certified firefighter, one of 220 inmates — including thieves, armed robbers and drug dealers — trained by the state while doing time in prisons.
    Almost all of them, and 70 probationers serving on fire-rake crews, have been called up in weeklong rotations to help fight the blaze that has burned more than 135 square miles of forest in and around the Okefenokee Swamp since April 16.
    As part of a team of 830 firefighters from across Georgia and neighboring states, the inmates have been working 12-hour days raking pine straw and dry leaves from residents’ yards to protect homes in the fire’s path.
    They’ve been extinguishing smoldering embers in burned woods to keep them from igniting again. Their work has brought them within 200 feet of raging flames in the Okefenokee Swamp, and into close quarters with its resident alligators and snakes.
    ‘‘There’s no telling how many homes in Ware County are still standing because these prisoners have been out there risking their lives,’’ said Joe Cornelius III, a Ware County commissioner and volunteer firefighter.
    The fire has destroyed 22 homes so far, but officials say about 370 houses in the path of the blaze have been saved.
    Laura Davis and her husband watched the inmates, who wear red T-shirts stenciled with ‘‘State Prisoner’’ under their fire-retardant gear, beating back flames with shovels and hoses when the flames crept into a friend’s field in Manor, a village of about 500 people southwest of Waycross.
    ‘‘One of them said, ‘Don’t worry about your friend’s house. We’re going to stay between the house and the fire,’’’ Davis recalled.
    Church groups have brought the prisoners hot meals of ham and fried chicken and volunteered to wash their laundry, said Rick Huggins, fire services director for the Georgia Department of Corrections.
    Huggins isn’t surprised the stigma of his firefighters’ crimes hasn’t followed them to the fire. Inmate fire teams based at 22 Georgia prisons and seven probation centers responded to nearly 4,000 emergency calls last year, from car crashes to house fires.
    ‘‘If your house is on fire, you don’t care if the guy on the end of the nozzle has a felony conviction,’’ Huggins said. ‘‘You want that fire put out. And that’s always been the case with us.’’
    Georgia prisons have recruited inmates to serve as unpaid firefighters since 1963. The Department of Corrections used them as a selling point when building new prisons in rural communities where emergency services can be scarce.
    Inmates volunteer to join and have to complete a minimum 60 hours of firefighter training. Only inmates considered minimum security risks or less can serve. Prisoners convicted of sex crimes or arson can’t apply. Felons convicted of violent crimes rarely get approved.
    That’s because inmate fire teams don’t wear shackles on the job and their supervising fire captains, who are also trained as corrections officers, carry no weapons. During wildfire rotations, they’re only locked down at night when they sleep in the gym at the local Ware State Prison.
    ‘‘We’ll get to the scene and people will say, ‘Why don’t they just jump in a car and take off?’’’ said inmate firefighter Jimmy D’Alvia, 41, who’s serving 10 years at Hancock State Prison for trafficking methampetamine. ‘‘It ain’t worth it. You did something wrong. Do your time and go home.’’
    The inmates say fighting fires has given them skills they can use to seek jobs after they’re released. Some have become full-time firefighters since Georgia lawmakers in the 1980s exempted prison-trained firefighters from a law banning felons from serving in fire departments.
    More importantly, becoming firefighters gives inmates a chance to prove to others — and themselves — that they’ve reformed, said inmate firefighter Darius Partridge, who’s serving 10 years for an armed robbery he committed at age 15.
    ‘‘People do change, people do evolve,’’ said Partridge, 24, an inmate at Hancock State Prison in Sparta, about 190 miles north of Waycross. ‘‘That’s something that I put behind me, and I pray that society will allow me to put it behind me when I get out.’’
   On the Net:
    Georgia Department of Corrections, Fire Services
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