Inmate firefighters in Nevada sue over wildfire injuries
LAS VEGAS (CN) — Seven inmates injured while mopping up a wildfire near Laughlin, Nevada, in 2021 sued the state for injuries sustained in the effort, claiming they were forced to keep working even after reporting they were hurt.
The inmates were working for the Nevada Division of Forestry and the Nevada Department of Corrections at the time of the injuries. They filed their lawsuit in the state's Eighth Judicial District Court.
“Wildland fires are a growing concern for the state of Nevada, and our clients take pride in their contributions to this community, but nothing justifies the treatment they endured. The state of Nevada sent them into dangerous terrain with faulty equipment and inadequate training,” said Chris Peterson, ACLU of Nevada legal director, in a statement.
“When our clients reported they were being burned early in their shift, our clients were ignored, mocked, threatened, and ultimately forced to keep working,” said Peterson.
On April 20, 2021, the firefighters, stationed at Jean Conservation Camp, were dispatched to an area near Laughlin to mop up after a large fire swept through the area.
The firefighters reported to Department of Forestry supervisors that the still-smoldering ground was burning their feet, but they were ordered to keep working. One of the plaintiff’s soles melted off, and in response, a supervisor taped it back onto the shoe and gave the order to return to work, they say in their complaint.
When they returned to the conservation camp, they found out their socks had melted to their feet and they needed assistance getting off the bus. That night, some of the firefighters had to crawl to take a shower and none received medical attention for their second-degree burns until the next day, according to their complaint.
“By the end of their work detail, our clients had burns across their feet to the point where they could not walk without assistance,” said Peterson. “We filed this case to make sure no one is ever treated like this again. Our clients are not disposable. These are human beings, and they have rights.”
The Department of Forestry either does not have a policy on when expired, worn-out, or damaged equipment will be removed from the inventory used by incarcerated firefighters, or else it does not follow such a policy if one exists, the plaintiffs say in the complaint.
The plaintiffs seek a court order to require the defendant departments to develop and implement policies and procedures that bolster training and safety protocols as well as having a process for incarcerated firefighters to report deficiencies without facing retaliation.
Nevada uses inmates to fight wildfires, a common practice among wildfire-plagued states in the West. Those involved want to participate in the program because of the meaningful work and the conditions at Jean Conservation Camp are more favorable that at the main prison, according to the ACLU.
Inmates are held to the same standards as “regular” firefighters but are paid differently. They make 83 cents per hour when not fighting fires and $1 per hour when dispatched to the field.
Plaintiffs include Rebecca Leavitt, Little Blue Sky Briggs, Jodie Eltzroth, Moniga Martinez, Britney Jackson, Sharon Newman and Stacy Tai. They are all represented by Mary E. Bacon of the Las Vegas firm Spencer Fane.
The defendant departments did not return calls seeking comment by press time.