DEVILS TOWER NATIONAL MONUMENT, Wyo. -- After a long summer battling wildfires that have burned millions of acres of Western forests, most firefighters are returning home. Not Dean Hyde.
His homecoming won't come until 2004, his scheduled release from prison for a drug offense.
Hyde, 51, is a member of the Smokebusters, a firefighting squad composed of low-risk inmates in the Wyoming Department of Corrections.
"I enjoy fighting fire," said Hyde, who has spent more than 700 hours on the fire lines this summer. "There's a different camaraderie and work ethic. Everyone seems to work together out there."
On a recent evening, Hyde and two dozen fellow inmates waited patiently outside the Crook County Saloon for a spaghetti dinner, a reward from residents for containing fires near Devils Tower.
"That program works," said Veronica Canfield, Crook County's emergency management coordinator, as she monitored fire reports from a makeshift command center at the saloon. "They are the nicest guys. They know how to fight fires. They've saved our butts."
Earlier this summer, the Smokebusters halted a fire four miles from the ranch of Bruce Zube.
"It's the best investment of taxpayer money I've ever seen," Zube said.
Zube, who volunteered to help feed the crew at the saloon, was taken aback by their politeness.
"Three of them told me 'sir' and I about slapped them," he joked.
Most Western states have prison firefighting teams. California has several thousand inmate firefighters.
The Wyoming Smokebusters are incarcerated at the Wyoming Honor Conservation Camp in Newcastle, 70 miles from Devils Tower. They fight fires throughout Wyoming and in South Dakota's Black Hills.
Including the 38-member team, about 140 inmates are housed at the lower-security camp instead of the state penitentiary.
"We would not have any death-row type murderers," said Michael Mitchell, the camp warden.
Prisoners who opt for the camp forestry program and pass stringent training and fitness tests earn the chance to become Smokebusters.
The team is supervised by the Wyoming Forestry Division and has been around since 1966, program manager Rob Akers said.
"I've had every conceivable crime," he said of offenses committed by team members. "Everything from forgery to murder to drug deals to anything you can think of."
But in his 20 years with the program, there has never been an escape.
Whether on fire lines or performing mundane community work such as trimming weeds at the state fairgrounds, the crew is always supervised. As members sipped soft drinks on the saloon's wooden boardwalk -- they are not allowed alcohol -- a supervisor kept watch.
Team members are paid. Wages start at $1 an hour and can double after 25 fires. It's not the $8.71 that first-year national firefighters earn, but no one is complaining.
"Even if I wasn't paid, it's nice to get out of the camp, plus it's nice just to get out here and feel human and see how society's going," James Pasek, 21, of Gillette, said as he sat near the saloon's front door.
The inmates enjoy a special relationship with their forestry supervisors.
"I feel they've kept me out of some really tight spots," Warren Rathbun, 43, of Henry, Neb., said.
Muscle-bound, tank top-clad Tom "Turtle" Pierson, 24, of Torrington, proclaimed that he holds the all-time record for most fires fought on the team: 41.
He is trying to save as much as he can so he'll have a little bit of money when released.
"I like what I'm doing now," he said. "I think I might pursue that."
Some of the men parlay their skills into professional firefighting jobs after prison. Even if they don't, the experience fosters a positive attitude, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Melinda Brazzale said.
"Many times this is the first time they have had a good job," she said. "It's hard work, and they feel they've accomplished something when the day is over."
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