From felon to firefighter, T.J. O'Neill takes unlikely journey

Posted at 7:38 PM, Mar 15, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-15 23:39:25-04

Wildland firefighter T.J. O'Neill has transformed himself from being a burden on the community to now working to protect it.

Arrested in 2011, O'Neill was sentenced to prison for drugs and drunk driving. While behind bars, he applied to join an inmate wildfire crew.  He had no prior firefighting experience and he received training.

While serving time, he worked building firelines across the state, saving forests and homes. He says the structure and challenges of the job also saved him.

"There were a lot of days that I realized, if I can get through the next hour of my shift, I can get through anything the world can throw at me,” O’Neill said.

After his release, O'Neill was hired by the Sonoita-Elgin Fire District. He's now up for a job as an elite hotshot.

Governor Doug Ducey says inmates who join the Department of Corrections fire crews have a lower recidivism rate. He's asking the legislature to approve $1.5 million to fund a new parolee fire crew next year.