An inmate and a firefighter
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
RIFLE, Colo. ” In the past, the only thing fire meant to Kentson Avila was to light up a marijuana joint or a meth pipe.
Today, fire means it’s time to go to work.
As a member of the State Wildland Inmate Fire Team (SWIFT), Avila has discovered a new chapter in his life.
He is a firefighter; he is suddenly somebody with a future. This new chapter is also an escape from an ugly past.
He was a drug dealer in Montrose, and that’s why he’s now serving an 8-year prison sentence for felony distribution.
On April 14, ferocious 50-mph winds fanned a small fire near Carbondale into a frightening torrent of flames and smoke. Hundreds of homes were threatened.
More than 50 miles away, Avila and 19 other members of the inmate fire team dressed in their gear and sped to Carbondale from the Rifle Correctional Center north of Rifle Gap Reservoir.
More than 1,000 acres burned, but no homes were destroyed. It was a job well done by all the fire crews.
That was Avila’s first time fighting a fire.
“Getting the call was a real rush. Lots of excitement but we were nervous,” he said.
For Pete Davis, a correctional support trade supervisor for the SWIFT team, he saw the usual fear and anxiety in the eyes of the inexperienced firefighters.
“Some of them seemed a little scared when we rolled out there, but it’s my job to take care of them and make sure they don’t get hurt,” he said.
For Avila, 26, it was a level of personal satisfaction that he’s never experienced as an adult. His past was one of selfishness and self-indulgence.
“I never thought I’d ever be a firefighter. It’s such a great feeling being out there and doing a good job. People saying thanks, it’s a good feeling,” Avila said. “I’ve never had a feeling like that before. I can’t say that I’ve ever done anything real positive with my life before that.”
Avila smiles and his blue eyes come alive when he talks about firefighting.
“It’s definitely something I’ll look at doing when I get out,” he said.
Firefighting is more than a job. It’s more than getting him away from the prison grounds for a few days. Firefighting provided Avila a jolt of reality that’s shown him how much life has to offer. And how many wrong turns he made in his past.
Becoming a firefighter has been a total lifestyle change for the Montrose native. It’s transformed him both mentally and physically.
The SWIFT squad, which includes three Colorado teams (Rifle, Buena Vista and Canon City), has an outstanding reputation around the state. When they’re on the fire line, they’re not inmates, they’re firefighters.
“We’re known as hard workers. There’s never been any negativity, it’s always been good feedback,” Avila said. There’s no inmate designation on the firefighter uniforms for the SWIFT squad. They work and fight fires side by side with other non-inmate crews.
“A lot of times, civilians don’t even know that we’re a prison crew,” he said.
Two crew bosses, including Davis, are also on the team, and there’s nothing on their uniforms to designate them as prison officials, either.
Davis said being on the team is a privilege that’s earned. And it’s not easy.
“When we do our initial interviews we find people who are trainable and we can mold into firefighters,” said Davis, 47, who has been at the correctional facility for 15 years and with the fire team since its inception in 2003.
The state of Colorado started the inmate fire team program to help offset overall firefighting costs.
There’s a very high expectation for the team. The team’s reputation is respected in the field and within the grounds of the Rifle Correctional facility.
“That’s one of our talks we have (with the inmate team). They are held to a higher standard in the facility and held to a higher standard to the other inmates,” Davis said.
There’s also no guarantee that an inmate will remain on the team. If an inmate screws up, they’re gone, Davis said. And that means being kicked off the inmate fire team and relocated to a higher security facility.
Battling the Carbondale blaze was a satisfying accomplishment for Avila, who was never really focused on helping others in the past.
He was focused on dealing drugs.
“I was dead serious about it. It was my career,” he said about being a drug dealer.
That was 2004. Today, he has a hard time understanding the type of person he was just a few years ago.
Today, being a firefighter consumes him and motivates him. His life is all about staying in shape and preparing for the future. A future that he’s confident won’t involve drugs.
“I don’t want to go back to where I was. I’m just ready to make my parents proud,” he said. Back in Montrose, Tammy Avila-Spear is a proud mother. Her son calls home three days a week. Back in April, when Tammy didn’t get a call she knew Kentson was out on a fire. That’s when she immediately started scanning the Internet looking for fires around the state.
Then she saw it.
A photograph in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent of several firefighters battling the Carbondale fire.
“I saw that and thought, ‘Oh my God,’ that’s Kentson, I knew it was him,” she said with a huge smile.
“I was so proud, I called everybody. I’ve printed if off, and emailed it to everyone I know.”
Kentson also has a copy of that photo that he keeps in his 9-foot-by-9-foot prison cell.
During his fast-lane life in Montrose, Kentson weighed 269 pounds. At 5-foot-11, he was plump, and wasn’t too worried about it.
He’s now down to a sturdy 200 pounds. He wouldn’t be on the fire team if he wasn’t in shape.
After his conviction he was sent to the Trinidad Correctional Facility, and that’s when he first thought about firefighting. Being on the fire team would mean a transfer to the Rifle facility.
Once Avila was focused on the fire team, Tammy saw an immediate difference.
“I could tell he was changed. I could hear it in his voice. He already had goals. I knew that he was focused on not wanting to ever go back to prison,” Tammy said.
Kentson is very honest when he talks about why the fire team first appealed to him.
“At first, it was because it would get me out of prison faster. I knew it would get me into shape, too. Now, I’m moving up, I’m a squad leader in training. It’s more responsibility and a little more money,” Kentson said.
More money isn’t much more.
Right now he makes $1.80 a day. During a fire, he gets an extra $6 a day for hazard pay. The team gets $800 a day when it goes out on a fire or mitigation work. That money is distributed between the 20-member crew.
Davis said he recognized attributes in Avila that would make him a good squad leader.
“He followed instructions well. You could tell him one time and he would follow those instructions. He was always asking questions,” Davis said.
When Avila was told he was going to be a squad leader, he was surprised. He never really considered himself a leader.
“I surprised myself for advancing the way I have,” he said.
Tammy isn’t happy about her son being in prison, but she’s now proud of what he’s doing with his life.
“I’m so proud of him. He has goals and I hope he sticks with firefighting when he gets out,” she said.
Davis said some inmates will pursue careers in the firefighting field when they are released. He says that three previous inmates have moved into the firefighting profession, and they still stay in touch with him.
“They contact me all the time, and that feels great,” he said.
The main goal of the fire team is to get inmates prepared for life on the outside. Simple goals for men who were lacking in the responsibility department before prison.
” What we’re trying to do is get them trained to show up on time, hold a job and do the job correctly,” Davis said.
Developing a work ethic is a huge part of the program. Tackling the physically demanding job takes a good work ethic.
Davis has seen inmates succeed and fail.
“It’s all about motivation. All people are different. With our program, we’re trying to get them to think differently than they have in the past. That’s the hard part,” Davis said.
Being on the fire team comes with a lot of duties. There’s plenty of book and classroom work, studying weather and wind patterns, routine maintenance on the fleet and other equipment. Anything related to fighting fires ” that’s their job.
The other part of the job is staying in shape.
To even be considered for the team, all candidates must pass the first test ” running a mile-and-a-half in 12 minutes.
Avila knew that would be a huge hurdle to clear.
“I practiced a lot in Trinidad. I was really out of shape,” he said with a smile.
The key to getting into shape was running. It was the first time in his life he’d ever done anything related to sports or physical fitness.
“There was a track there, and I’d go out there and run and run until I couldn’t run anymore,” he said.
Then came the test. He needed to break the 12-minute mark or the fire team would be put on hold.
Avila holds up two fingers and smiles.
“Two seconds, I made it with 2 seconds to spare.”
That was in November 2007. On Dec. 6, he was transferred to Rifle, and in February he did his firefighting training, which is the same as all wildland firefighters. The test includes having to walk 3 miles carrying a 45-pound pack.
“That was easier than the run,” Avila said with another smile.
Now he runs and lifts weights regularly, almost daily. “For me firefighting is a new skill, a new trade,” he said.
The first six months in jail and prison were the toughest for Avila. He felt like a disappointment to his parents, he was facing a long prison sentence, and his future was still missing direction.
Being a firefighter has shown Avila what he’d been missing while on the outside.
He enthusiastically says that prison has been a great thing for him.
“It’s been nothing but positive experiences for me,” he said. “I was really depressed for the first six months, but when I came to Rifle things got better.” The minimum security facility in Rifle is all about trust.
“If you got to be in prison, this is the place to be,” he said with a grin.
Life is good for Avila, even if his current home is a prison cell. He says that prison has slowed life down for him. It’s made him arrange his priorities and get him away from drugs.
“I’m so comfortable here. I’m just trying to work on my future,” he said. Working on his future always comes with a quick glance to his past. The ugly past that spiraled out of control.
Even his mom cringes when she thinks of what could have happened to her son.
“I think if he was still out there doing that stuff he would be dead,” she said.
The transformation from drug dealer to firefighter and responsible person is a work in progress, Kentson admits. But the motivation is all about doing the right thing when he gets out. Today, life for Kentson Avila is about living in the present.
The fire team is just one aspect of his new positive outlook on life. He’s teaching himself the guitar, he’s reading lots of books, and has embraced his artistic side by drawing and painting.
Prison life could end sometime in late 2009 when he might be eligible for a halfway house.
When he’s released, he will look to use the lessons of prison and mistakes from his past, and put them to work as a free man.
He’s careful to not think about life outside of prison yet. It’s still too far down the road.
He feels that the lessons of an ugly past have already pointed him in the right direction. The lessons of prison, including learning his new trade of firefighting, could be where he turns in the future.
Maybe the greatest lesson Avila has learned in prison is about himself.
He learned that there was a better person waiting to escape from the man he once was and the person he never wants to be again.
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