Prisoners Start New Lives Fighting Fires in Arizona
By Naomi Lim
Arizona is starting a program designed to help newly released prisoners assimilate into their communities through fighting wildfires.
The program is expected to begin in the next two months. And even though the first team of professional firefighters to be made solely of former inmates hasn't been chosen yet, administrators already refer to it with a term of endearment: The Phoenix Crew.
Named for the state's capital as well as the mythological bird reborn from the ashes of its old life, the $1.5 million joint initiative between Arizona's Department of Corrections and Department of Forestry and Fire Management is a passion project of the state's first-term Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.
"It's opportunities like this where corrections truly becomes corrections," Ducey said during his State of the State Address in January.
Through the program, non-violent, low-risk ex-prisoners will be taught to fight wildfires and undertake fire prevention tasks, building on an initiative that has been offered to inmates for more than 25 years.
"And we need more of them, so that over time, we can turn the tide and reduce our prison population, provide that second chance, while also protecting public safety," Ducey said.
It also could help with a growing environmental problem as fires throughout the West have become larger, more frequent, deadlier and costlier.
At the end of August, more than 400,000 acres across the state had been hit by this year's season fire season, the largest area burned since 2011, according to Arizona Public Media.