The Ridgerunners were nearly home from a project in Helena earlier this summer when they saw plumes of smoke billowing from the mountains behind Deer Lodge. "I said to myself, 'Nah, that can't be, it's only May. It's not even fire season yet,'" Tom Gillibrand recalls.
Twenty minutes later Gillibrand's phone rang. Rumsey Gulch was burning and the Ridgerunners were needed at the site—immediately. When they arrived, the blaze quickly consumed one house and, 40 minutes later, burned down four more.
"It happened so damn fast," Incident Commander Joe Brabender says. "We didn't even get fully on the scene when that fire made its run. It was so chaotic."
That first night, the crew slept in its tents on the side of the road and prepared to tackle the fire early the next morning. While they rested, an officer kept guard, staying awake all night until every one of the Ridgerunners had woken up and moved to a fire line.
The Ridgerunners aren't a typical hand crew. They're inmates from the state prison in Deer Lodge, a group of convicted murderers, violent offenders, drug users and drunken drivers trained to work the fire lines through an agreement between the Montana Department of Corrections and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The crew saves the state thousands of dollars every fire season with its on-site work while also helping the inmates develop skills that, ideally, build confidence and increase their chance of success once released.
Gillibrand has run the crew since it restarted in 2002. He's now on his 16th year as a corrections officer in Montana and he looks the part: tall and brawny with a buzz cut and a trim mustache that extends to the corners of his chin. But the stereotype ends where his relationship to his crew begins. He refers to each inmate by his first name. Three days a week Gillibrand comes in voluntarily at 5:30 a.m. to lead his crew through an exercise regimen.
"I'm with these guys constantly," he says. "When we're on fires I sleep next to them in the dirt for two weeks. We know how each other works and behaves."
To be eligible for the crew, inmates must be in minimum security, not a sex offender or arsonist, approved by law enforcement and community panels, and able to pass an endurance test. The application process can take up to three months and of the roughly 200 that apply, fewer than 20 are chosen. The prisoners earn $1 an hour and their wages pay into whatever fines or restitution they owe.
Officially referred to as the Deer Lodge crew, they nicknamed themselves the Ridgerunners a few years ago. They don't wear shackles or jumpsuits. Their only discernible attire is an orange helmet with the American flag and the word "inmate" printed on the side. Otherwise, they look, work and travel like any other fire crew.
When the Rumsey Gulch fire broke out in May, they were the first hand crew on the scene and among those working in the chaotic environment to help control the blaze. Smoke blanketed the valley and officials ordered home evacuations in the area. Brabender recalls seeing people hysterically fleeing, some with only their horses in tow.
But not all of the homeowners evacuated. In one case, the only thing between the residents and the approaching blaze was a slash pile the size of a single car garage. The Ridgerunners say they were in position to fend off the flames.
"I didn't think we would be able to do it," inmate Mike McCroskey says. "It was going so fast that when you dug in and pulled the dirt back you'd have to be careful not to pull the flames along with it."
The crew says it guided the burn away from the house and into the side of the road, where it held a mere 20 feet from the slash pile.
"We were just standing there and I realized that we just saved that person's house," Gillibrand says. "Well, these guys did. I was pointed where to dig."
Inmate Steve Pier wears silver-rimmed glasses and his forearms are covered in tattoos. He's in his second season with the Ridgerunners and has worked his way up to sawyer. He says he finds a peace in the forests that doesn't exist anywhere else in his life right now. He credits the job for playing a significant role in his personal transformation since he entered the correctional system in 2001. Though it helps him feel absolved of his past—he was originally found guilty of felony assault and tampering with evidence, but is now in prison for violating his parole—the stigma of being an inmate still weighs on him.
"I get self-conscious. I know I'm a prisoner ... we're not here for being good people," he says."But giving back to the community like this, being part of the solution instead of being a problem is a breath of fresh air for the spirit."
Pier is up for parole again this month and says he'll look for work in the oilfields of eastern Montana. He hopes to join a fire crew if he's released early, but the travel restrictions for parolees put the odds against him.
"If I had a chance to get on a team I'd do it in a heartbeat," he says. "When I signed up to do this I just wanted to get out of the unit, but doing things like saving someone's property—that genuinely touches a person."