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Once incarcerated women, men get second chance by fighting wildfires

Posted at 10:52 PM, Dec 13, 2017
and last updated 2017-12-14 00:52:19-05

Thirteen former inmates are going from the chow line to the fire lines.

Appropriately named the "Phoenix Crew," the group is the first wildfire team made up of ex-cons. The group started training on Monday.

"You can go to prison and do the wrong things or you can hang out with people who are doing the right things," a crew member explained.

And like the Phoenix, these people are looking to rise from the ashes of their past, reborn into a new life.

"It gives you a different outlook on life, it gives you a different purpose," said Matt Alexander, a former inmate who is now a full-time firefighter.

Alexander went to jail for forgery but with every home he saves, a sense of pride is restored.

"Just to see them and they thank us, they look at us in such high regard, it's not a look you're used to getting," Alexander said.

One hundred applicants narrowed down to a lucky 13.

Their service as inmate fire fighters while in prison and good behavior behind bars providing them a new path.

"When our passion meets career amazing things can happen," said Nicole Polvent a former drug user now firefighter.

A 1.5 million dollar grant from the governor will send these newly minted hot shots to communities all across the country.

Their impact not only felt where the fire rages but at home as well.

"This can truly not just affect the recidivism rate, but restore families," said a motivated former prisoner Jason Pesek.

Through the program, non-violent, low-risk ex-prisoners are taught to fight wildfires and undertake fire prevention tasks, building on an initiative that has been offered to inmates for more than 25 years.

Former prisoners have to take part in a competitive application process to be selected for the 13-person, full-time crew.

"It was a grueling interview process but well worth it," said another crew member.

The recruitment drive also includes a squad boss, a captain, and a superintendent — positions that will eventually be filled by recently released inmates as well.

Officials say many states will be watching the program closely and anticipate it could catch fire far beyond the Valley.