The decision to close Larch Corrections Center has raised concerns for Clark County fire district officials in prime wildfire areas who rely on inmate crews trained by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to help their efforts.
Late last month, Clark County Fire District 13 Division Chief Chuck Andrus sent a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee on behalf of the district asking for reconsideration of the closure of the minimum security prison on the east side of the county. In June, the Washington state Department of Corrections announced it would be closing the facility this fall.
“I cannot stress to you enough the importance of keeping this facility in operation,” Andrus wrote.
The chief pointed to firefighting crews from Larch supporting both firefighting and cleanup efforts for wildfires and other community projects inmates support. The loss of those crews would exacerbate the already little relief seen for increasingly severe wildfires in recent years.
Andrus noted the governor made an Aug. 19 proclamation declaring a state of emergency due to this year’s wildfires.
“[Y]ou are well aware of the wildfire dangers in our state, and you are also well aware that firefighting resources are limited and inadequate in some areas,” Andrus wrote.
Shuttering Larch and its firefighting ability would remove a critical resource for Fire District 13, Andrus said. In an email, he noted the facility lies within the district’s boundaries.
Regionally, Andrus noted the 2020 Big Hollow Fire, which burned more than 24,000 acres of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Closer to home, last year’s Nakia Creek Fire burned about 1,900 acres in southeast Clark County, with roughly 3,000 homes evacuated.
Smaller wildfires also receive Larch support, Andrus wrote. He said, in an email, he couldn’t think of a wildfire his district has been involved in that didn’t involve crews from Larch.
Andrus noted the governor’s own proclamation acknowledged “a need to have all necessary firefighting resources readily available.”
“I’d encourage you to look at Larch Corrections as part of that solution,” Andrus wrote to Inslee.
Outside of the larger-scale fires, Larch crews also supported the fast containment of the Jenny Creek Fire near La Center. The blaze that started Aug. 16 burned 32 acres and received support of dozens of firefighters from the facility, Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue Division Chief Ben Peeler said as the fire was being extinguished.
Clark County Fire District 10 Chief Gordon Brooks said Larch crews have responded to three fires in the district this year. He estimates his district works with Larch crews three to seven times a year, typically responding to smaller fires.
For a mostly volunteer department like Fire District 10, having those crews allows for the district to return to more routine duties like medical and traffic calls or structure fires, Brooks said in an email. As the district has joint jurisdiction with the DNR in almost all of its boundary, “it makes a lot of sense to do the initial rapid response and transfer the incident to them as soon as they get on scene,” he said.
“I question why Larch was chosen as the corrections facility to close down,” Brooks said.
From his own experience, Larch’s firefighting program seemed more robust than other facilities in western Washington, Brooks said. He took issue with one of the reasons the department claimed for the closure, that of tens of millions in needed repairs.
“If it is because of delayed maintenance, that was a choice they made,” Brooks said.
Outside of work during the fires themselves, Larch crews are also involved in tree planting, brush cutting and thinning, Brooks said. That improvement to state forestland can help with timber revenues that support schools, adding value on top of the work in fighting fires.
“While inmate crews are a very valuable resource for firefighting, that is only a portion of the impact to our statewide economy,” Brooks said.
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