RICHMOND — As the fires grew on a Buchanan County hillside November 1, the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) firefighters needed backup. They called the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC). Soon, six additional firefighters arrived to battle and contain the blaze that spanned across 500 acres.
Those firefighters, probationers from the Appalachian Community Corrections Alternative Program (CCAP), were available thanks to a long-standing collaborative effort between the VADOC and the VDOF. The partnership utilizes low-risk, nonviolent probationers who join with staff to fight wildfires and participate in fire-prevention activities.
“These efforts help protect a vast area of both public and private properties,” said VADOC Director Chadwick Dotson. “This is another example of how VADOC works to keep Virginia communities safe. These VADOC firefighting teams provide a valuable and necessary service,” he added.
VDOF trains approximately 100 probationers every year. Many of them hail from the areas most effected by the fires and appreciate the opportunity to provide assistance.
“It was a great experience, and I loved the feeling of I was helping a community. I really feel like I did something good,” said probationer Aaron Billings.
“Our firefighters are very enthusiastic and seem to enjoy what they do,” said Major Tracy Davidson. “Doing for others can lift a person’s spirits, and I’ve seen this happen many times with our firefighters.”
The first VADOC firefighting partnership began in 1996 with the U.S. Forest Service. Today, with assistance from the VDOF, training takes place at the Patrick Henry Correctional Unit in Ridgeway; the Wise Correctional Unit in Coeburn; and Appalachian CCAP in Honaker.
Each facility trains probationers in a variety of wildfire skills. They must be medically and physically sound. After training, probationers are considered entry-level certified wild land firefighters and must be recertified annually. Their general duties may include digging fire lines, back burning, monitoring for hot spots and mop-up (basic clean up after the fire has been controlled).