SALT LAKE CITY – A rape case against an Idaho prison inmate working at a Utah wildfire base camp raises safety questions for vulnerable crews who spend long days on the front lines, the head of a firefighting nonprofit said Wednesday.
"It's going to put a chill through fire camps across the country," said Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology. The case is an extreme example of a culture of harassment that women have endured working wildfires in the past, he said.
Inmate Ruben Hernandez is charged with sexually assaulting a base-camp worker after she rejected his advances on Aug. 29. He invoked his right to a speedy trial during his first court appearance on Wednesday, a signal he disputes the rape charge, said prosecutor Kevin Daniels.
His defense attorney didn't immediately return a message seeking comment.
Hernandez met the woman while working on a janitorial inmate crew making $1.25 an hour at the remote camp south of Salt Lake City, according to court records. It was his first time working at a wildfire and he had spent nine days working before his arrest, said Idaho Department of Correction spokesman Jeff Ray.
Court records show Hernandez, 27, of Blackfoot, Idaho, has a history of misdemeanor arrests dating back more than a decade, including theft and alcohol violations. He was serving time on a felony drug charge when he joined the wildfire program. He had been sentenced to probation but was sent to prison for a three-to-seven-year term after he violated it.
He qualified for the wildfire program because he had no history of assault, was less than a year from being paroled and didn't have serious behavior problems behind bars, prison officials said.
He also was required to show he could carry a heavy pack and pass basic CPR training to participate.
Most Western states have similar programs for minimum-security inmates, some dating back decades. Experts say cases like the one against Hernandez appear to be rare, though there have been some cases where inmates have tried to walk off the job.
Working on a wildfire crew is typically a sought-after position by inmates because it allows them to get into the outdoors, and they don't often cause problems, said Jack Tidrow, president of the Professional Firefighters of Utah union.
"You just hardly even hear of problems with those crews," he said.
The Idaho Department of Correction returned its inmate crews to prison after the charge was filed last week. Prison authorities are cooperating with the Utah investigation and reviewing the way they choose, train and deploy inmates in the program.
The 10-person crew from Idaho was supervised by two correctional officers. Inmates wear correction department T-shirts and work in groups of two. They are allowed to move around inside the camps and interact with other workers as their do their jobs.
That relative autonomy inside the camp is "shocking" for Ingalsbee, who said that firefighters are often exhausted at the end of long days at the front lines when they return to base camp to eat and sleep. Camps can be like small cities, with hundreds of people and plenty of places for things to slip between the cracks, he said.
Crews' "guards are lowered, and the last thing they need to be dealing with feeling fearful," he said. "You don't want to end that possibility with inmates, but there has to be close security and screening of candidates like that."
Associated Press reporter Keith Ridler in Boise, Idaho, contributed to this story.