Sometimes, when Nelson is unrolling yet another smoky, soot-soiled fire hose, he finds a burnt, blackened stick trapped inside.
“That’s what gets me,” he says.
The charred twigs are a reminder of the reality of B.C.’s forest fires, of the wildlife fleeing the flames, of the exhaustion of the firefighters, of the homeowners left wondering if they’ll have anything left to come home to. “It lingers with you.”
Nelson says he would volunteer to fight the flames himself if he could, but he can’t. He’s in jail.
He’s an inmate at the Nanaimo Correctional Centre at Brannen Lake, one of the unlikelier fronts in the war against the forest fires raging across the province this summer. It’s where the B.C. Wildfire Service sends thousands of its hoses for refurbishing.
As you might expect, it has been a busy year, with hours expanding to meet demand. Inmates were on a Monday to Friday schedule, but began working weekends as of June 26. They do evenings, too. The hose crew has two shifts of 14 to 20 men alternating one day on, one day off, from 8:30 in the morning until 8 at night, with breaks for meals.
For this they are paid $2 to $8 a day, depending on the task. The wages are nothing to write home about, but they pay for chips, pop, toothpaste, phone calls and other small luxuries not covered by the system, which doesn’t supply much more than meals, prison garb and a foam-rubber bed on a concrete bunk. “It’s not like we can order pizza here,” Nelson says.
He’s not complaining. Hey, it’s a jail. “I put myself here, right?”
At 35, Nelson is older than the typical prisoner. Having arrived in December for a one-year stay — he doesn’t say what for — he’s also serving a longer sentence than the 31Ú2-month average. He has been on the hose crew since April.
It’s good to remain busy, he says. “Keeping my work ethic up will help me when I get out of here.”
But there’s more to it than that. There’s pride in this job during a fire crisis. Sometimes inmates show up on their days off. “I would be down here for free,” Nelson says.
It’s meaningful work that contributes to a larger cause and makes isolated people feel part of a common effort. “In a weird way, it feels like we’re helping out.”
Inmates have been doing the work since the 1980s. It’s a good deal for the Forest Service, which pays $120 to $140 for a new 30-metre hose, but only, on average, $15 to have one returned to working order at Brannen Lake.
Firefighters go through 2,000 to 5,000 lengths of hose in an average summer, but that can hit 20,000 in a year like this. The hoses get burned, mangled by heavy equipment, punctured by tools — then shipped to Nanaimo or a private contractor for washing and repair.
“We put out about 4,000 hoses in the last 14 days,” Nelson says. He says the inmates do a good job.
A total of 136 men are doing time inside the double-fenced facility at Brannen Lake. Everybody’s in a work or school program.
Some inmates toil on the prison’s farm, which has a haying operation, a small horticultural effort and 200 chickens; the eggs are donated to local school lunch programs and community groups. Some prisoners cut firewood, which the public can buy. Another program teaches inmates how to fix bikes, which get donated to Third World countries.
A carpentry shop produces lawn furniture and a variety of other products. From mid-February until the end of May, Corrections staff and two dozen inmates teamed up to build 335 picnic tables for Scouts Canada’s Pacific Jamboree, which saw 3,000 people descend on Sooke’s Camp Barnard last weekend. Some inmates worked weekends to make sure the tables were ready on time.
This doesn’t make them saints, but it shows that they’re not just sinners.
And with the forests in flames, contributing to the solution, even from inside the fence, is good for the soul.
“It makes you feel a little bit better about being in jail,” Nelson says.