State prison officials want to cut number of inmate firefighting camps in half
Facing a shortage of staff and inmates, Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) officials told state lawmakers that they need to close half of their inmate firefighting camps located throughout rural Nevada — stoking concerns that the closures could affect the ability of the state to respond to wildfires this summer and beyond.
During a budget subcommittee meeting last week focused on the agency’s budget, NDOC Director James Dzurenda told legislators that the prison system’s well-documented staffing issues coupled with a limited pool of eligible inmates was forcing the department’s hand, leading to a long-term budget recommendation to consolidate the state’s nine conservation camps to just four.
“On my end, I don't see any options for us to even fill these beds, even if we kept it open forever,” Dzurenda said. “And I don't have people to put in it, offenders or staff.”
According to a presentation by Legislative Counsel Bureau (LCB) staff, the state requires a minimum of 740 inmates to fully staff the conservation camp program, but only around 300 inmates presently qualify for the program, which only accepts minimum security inmates who can pass a physical test. NDOC attributes this to the passage of 2019’s AB236, an omnibus criminal justice bill meant to reduce the state’s prison population, which has made it easier for inmates working in the camps to qualify for parole.
NDOC said the number of statewide inmate firefighting crews has declined from 15 to only four as of April 2023.
The agency’s plan is to reduce the number of operating conservation camps to six for the upcoming two-year budget cycle (Stewart, Three Lakes, Jean, Pioche, Wells and Carlin), closing the camps operating in Ely, Tonopah and Humboldt. The state is planning to reclassify several dozen vacant positions in the Division of Forestry into a total of 42 full-time firefighter positions available to non-inmates — a move an LCB staffer said was intended to “cover gaps in coverage where offenders may not be available.”
Sen. Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka) said he was concerned about the proposed closure of the Tonopah Conservation Camp, as the area’s location in the geographic center of the state and remoteness from other population centers presented a much higher risk of wildfire damage if the facility was to close.
“When you take Tonopah out of the equation, then it becomes a long, long ways to anywhere,” he said.
Assemblywoman Natha Anderson (D-Sparks) said she was dismayed with the “horrible, infinite issue” of having to rely on the state having enough inmates to provide firefighting services in rural areas.
“What a horrible situation we've put our communities into, and what a horrible situation we put our inmates into, as well as the department, because we're literally not having enough people that are committing the crimes to be able to provide an essential service of firefighting,” she said.
Correction (April 20, 2023, at 1:36 p.m.): A previous version of this article misstated the name of one of the fire camps being closed. It is the Humboldt Camp, not Hawthorne Camp.