Staci Stagner pauses a moment to wipe the layer of dust from her parched lips. With little time to spare, the 41-year-old hoists an ax high above her head before ramming it into the ground with all her might.
Down the line, a few beads of sweat form on Rebecca Dean’s forehead as she yanks weeds and brush from the earth. She’s a youngster at 24, but she does the job like a pro.
“Standing tall and looking good . . . ought to be in Hollywood!” they chant. “Stay alert! Stay alive!”
Meet the “Firewalkers,” Arizona’s first and only all-female inmate wildland firefighting crew.
The program, believed to be only the second of its type in the nation, was spearheaded this year by Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano in an effort to place more certified inmate firefighters on the front lines of the state’s wildfires.
Arizona has more than 200 male inmates currently certified to battle wildland blazes across the state. But this summer, Dean and Stagner, inmates at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Perryville in Goodyear, became two of 16 women selected for an opportunity once reserved for male counterparts.
“Just getting out there in the wilderness, possibly saving people’s houses and their livelihood, that’s going to be a wonderful feeling,” said Stagner, the crew’s oldest member.
The inaugural training program for these self-proclaimed Firewalkers includes intensive physical workouts – daily 2-mile runs and dozens of push-ups are the norm – along with nearly 60 hours of classroom and field training. Everyone on the crew is classified as non-violent and a low flight risk.
When the Firewalkers completed their courses last month, they became state-certified wildland firefighters, equipped to battle any blaze and work alongside non-inmate crews.
Guarded by a sergeant and two corrections officers from the prison, the crew can remain at a wildfire up to two weeks.
It’s a big step, but these women believe they’re ready.
Not one complains about the work, even during a difficult training session when instructors ordered them to dig a fireproof line in the dirt.
And they don’t hesitate to brag, especially when people doubt their capabilities.
“They’re going to get shown what we can actually do. My entire team will have no problem pulling our weight right next to the men,” said Stagner, who is serving a 10-year sentence for forgery.
That’s an attitude Officer Gricel Crespo likes to hear.
When she’s not shouting commands like a drill sergeant, the crew’s training officer works on boosting confidence and preparing the group for a difficult and dangerous job.
“Women have a tendency to keep going and never give up, especially when you’re being underestimated,” said Crespo, a specialist in the Army Reserve who has worked as a corrections officer for three years.
Although most of their colleagues on the fire line are paid about $13 an hour, the Firewalkers will earn 50 cents for every hour they work. And if the inmates owe restitution payments to their victims, they’ll see only a fraction of their salaries.
But that doesn’t weaken the resolve of inmates like Dean, who is trying to learn an important new skill and become a role model for her 15-year-old sister.
Dean’s family was rocked when she pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 2000. Today, the former flight attendant wants nothing more than to make her sister proud.
“It gives me an opportunity to be a good role model for her and show her that her big sister can do things besides go to prison,” said Dean, who has just under two years left on her sentence.
Though the past several years have been tough, Annie Dean said she couldn’t be more proud of her big sister’s desire to give back to the community.
“I was really excited for her just to be able to get out, even for just a week, so she can see nature and see the world and what’s happening besides the gray place that she’s in,” Annie said.
Perryville Warden Denny Harkins expects his share of criticism from people who believe inmates belong in that gray place, pondering their crimes 24 hours a day.
But Harkins believes it’s his job to release well-adjusted, trained professionals into the community.
“Do we just want to open the cage door and let them out with no skills?” Harkins asked. “I’d want someone released who has a fighting chance of making it.”
Rebecca Dean likes that attitude.
Until this program came along, she wasn’t sure what direction her life would take.
Now, she is planning to attend Arizona State University and spend her summers as a wildland firefighter. And Dean has a message for people who don’t think she can handle her new job: “Stand back and watch.”