Prison closure plan stokes wildfire response worries in southwest Washington

When Larch Corrections Center shuts down, nearly 80 incarcerated firefighters will move to new facilities.

By: - August 29, 2023 5:28 pm

(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

There are nearly 80 prisoners at the Larch Corrections Center in southwest Washington who assist the state with wildland firefighting. In recent years, incarcerated people there have been dispatched to dozens of fires annually, with some laboring on hand crews and others assigned to cooking duties. 

That’s why Washington Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz said it was a shock when the state Department of Corrections said in June it would close the facility by Oct. 1 – before this year’s wildfire season is over. 

Shuttering Larch will mean moving prisoners there who work on firefighting crews to another site about an hour away. Franz said this will create new costs and complications for the Department of Natural Resources, the state’s lead wildfire response agency, which she oversees. 

“There is a lack of partnership in the sense of really understanding how significant these crews are,” Franz said.

The prison closure’s effects on firefighting are just one reason it has proven controversial. Critics also argue that inmates will lose access to valuable education programs only available at Larch.

Meanwhile, Larch staff say Corrections left them out of the decision-making on whether to close the prison. They contend that the closure will pose hardships for 115 employees who work at the minimum security facility, which is located in Yacolt, northeast of Vancouver, Washington.

Some families could also end up further away from their incarcerated loved ones who are moved to other sites.

Corrections says changes to state drug possession laws mean Washington will need less minimum security prison space in the coming years. That, combined with Larch’s remote location and pricey renovation needs, are the reason it was targeted to be shut down, according to the department.

‘An hour makes an enormous amount of difference’

Larch is one of four state prison facilities with work crews that assist the Department of Natural Resources.

Since 2014, Larch has had more than 40 dispatches for hand crews and between five and 10 for kitchen workers each year, according to the department. 

Mark Francis, a correctional sergeant at Larch, said that, as of early August, the Department of Natural Resources sent out crews from Larch more than 30 times this year alone. 

Along with firefighting, the work crews who assist the Department of Natural Resources do litter pick up, habitat restoration, graffiti removal and landscaping. The crews also help care for forests in the region. 

Since 2020, Larch crews served nearly 400 crew-days on active fires, Franz wrote in a July 21 letter urging Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange to pause the closure.

Corrections spokesman Chris Wright told the Standard that the department is committed to working with the Department of Natural Resources to ensure firefighting capabilities are not lost. 

Wright said they are looking to add 70 beds at a facility in Longview where incarcerated individuals who fight fires could move. Though the site may be farther away from fires close to Larch, Wright noted that it’s less likely the facility will be forced to evacuate due to a wildfire.

Wright added that inmates at Larch aren’t often first responders at fires anyway, so if their response time is slightly slower, there will still be people there to fight the fires first.

But Franz said the location of Larch is essential to assisting DNR crews in firefighting. 

An incarcerated fire crew member assists with a controlled burn in an undated photo. (Department of Corrections)

“An hour makes an enormous amount of difference,” Franz said. “Pulling them a full hour further away from the Cascade foothills … is going to have a significant impact.”

In emails before the closure was decided, Corrections officials acknowledged that closing Larch would mean slower prison crew response times to wildfires in southwest Washington and an increased need to pull in help to the region from other prisons.

Mike Faulk, spokesman for Gov. Jay Inslee, wrote in an email last week that the governor’s office had no plans to change course with the Larch closure. But he added that Corrections is working with the Department of Natural Resources to provide the same level of firefighting support they do today, assuming DNR’s funding for those positions remains unchanged. 

Pushing for a pause

Franz said Corrections underestimated the increase in cost that moving crews from Larch would have on her department.  

She said shifting crews to Longview could “nearly triple” the cost for the Department of Natural Resources. And she said managing crews at a re-entry center like the one at Longview requires different resources and responsibilities than it does at a site like Larch. 

“Where does that money come from?” Franz added. 

Franz is pushing Corrections to delay the Oct. 1 closure deadline so DNR can finish this year’s wildfire season, and both departments can go to the Legislature when it’s back in session beginning in January and discuss funding. 

Moving the crews in the middle of fire season, Franz said, takes an “enormous” amount of time and resources when her department should be focused on fighting fires.

Predictions show Washington will likely remain in fire season through October. Last year, the Nakia Creek Fire burned well into October, even causing Larch to be evacuated. 

State Rep. Greg Cheney, a Republican who represents the district where the prison is located, said he didn’t understand why Corrections announced the closure when it did.

“How demoralizing is it to be told that your entire program is going to be torn apart right at the start of fire season?” he said. 

‘Key to reducing recidivism’

Supporters of keeping Larch open say the facility is a prime example of a prison system that focuses on education, work readiness and rehabilitation. 

They tout the site’s education programs, which help inmates earn GED diplomas at high rates, along with tutoring programs and partnerships with Washington State University Vancouver and Clark College. 

Along with firefighting, incarcerated people at Larch gain a number of other work skills. Crews also assist community organizations in the area with landscaping, clean up and even salmon habitat restoration. 

The Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group based in Vancouver wrote a letter in early July expressing disappointment with the decision to close the prison. 

The nonprofit focuses on salmon habitat restoration and wrote in their letter that they rely on assistance from Larch work crews to complete their work. The organization also said they have recently begun using space at Larch to grow willows for riverside restoration. 

But Corrections argues that larger facilities often have more options for these types of programs, which will benefit people moved from Larch. Wright said all credits people earned at Larch will be transferred.

“We don’t think anything will be lost from moving people to other facilities,” he said. 

Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, said allowing incarcerated individuals to serve their sentences close to home has upsides, keeping visitation from families and friends regular and allowing people to use their skills in a community where they may end up after being released.

“Both are key to reducing recidivism,” Wylie said in a statement reacting to the Larch closure. “This decision would reverse so much progress we’ve made regarding criminal justice reform.” 

Kehaulani Walker, activist and founder of Families of the Incarcerated, said she has heard a mix of responses from Larch prisoners and their families. Some are happy to be relocated, she said, but others don’t want to have to move away from their families or lose their jobs as wildland firefighters. 

But Walker said she doesn’t understand why Corrections is choosing to close the facility, and why they’re doing it so quickly.

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Laurel Demkovich
Laurel Demkovich

Laurel joined States Newsroom in 2023 after almost three years as a statehouse reporter for the Spokesman-Review. She covers state government, the Legislature and all other Olympia news.