The incarcerated women battling wildfires

In ‘Breathing Fire,’ Jaime Lowe uncovers the benefits and drawbacks of California’s inmate fire program.

 

In 2016, a boulder struck and killed 22-year-old Shawna Jones while she battled the Mulholland Fire in Malibu, California. Jones was part of an inmate crew from Correctional Camp 13, making her the first incarcerated woman to die while fighting a fire since 1983, the year women first joined California’s inmate firefighting program, which started in 1946.

After Jones’ death, the Los Angeles Times published a bare-bones article about the incident. It revealed little about Jones, but it drew the attention of California-raised journalist Jaime Lowe, who was determined to discover more. Lowe’s years-long investigation resulted in Breathing Fire, an immersive, comprehensive look at Jones’ life and the lives of other incarcerated firefighters, as well as California’s history of inmate firefighting and its growing reliance on it. Given the new reality of California’s fire season, which “lasts 13 months,” as environmental historian Stephen J. Pyne puts it, often all that stands between a family’s home and a conflagration are the imprisoned people that labor, sometimes for 24 hours straight, to restrain the flames.

Incarcerated firefighters working on the Detwiler Fire in Mariposa County, California, in 2017.
Peter Bohler

Incarcerated people comprise up to 30% of California’s wildland fire crews. At the time Lowe reported this book, around 200 of these firefighters were female, making up three out of California’s 35 inmate fire camps. Imprisoned people do difficult work, establishing “a line, usually a few feet wide, by cutting through trees and shrubs and removing anything that could burn.” For this grueling and risky labor, they earn $2.56 per day while in camp, and up to $2 an hour while fighting fires. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation estimated that paying such minuscule wages for this vital work, rather than the standard hourly rate, “saved the state at least $1.2 billion” over 13 years.

Lowe delves into California’s history of compulsory labor, including a cruel law passed in 1850 that allowed white people to accuse Indigenous people of lacking employment, whereupon they could be arrested and sold into four months of slavery at a public auction. Lowe draws a direct line from this to the inmate labor that contributed to the construction of much of California’s infrastructure, including building the Pacific Coast Highway and carving out the 22-mile stretch of land to create Sunset Boulevard. When World War II brought personnel shortages, corrections officers began forcing incarcerated people to fight fires.

“She might even be willing to risk her life.”

Wildland firefighters from Malibu Camp 13 rest while working on the Detwiler Fire.
Peter Bohler

Lowe vividly paints the realities of present-day firefighting. Her precise descriptions of sensory details — the air is “congested with blackened particles” — and firefighting and inmate lingo make readers feel as if they’re in camp with the women, jumping out of bunks at the 3 a.m. siren and piling into a buggy to race off toward a roaring wildfire. Lowe also weaves in accounts of the women’s lives, including their stints in standard prison facilities before they joined the firefighting program. Most were sentenced for drug offenses, as only nonviolent offenders who complete an intense training regimen can join the program. But even though her interviewees see the benefits of their work, Lowe notes that “most bristled at the idea that they volunteered.” When an incarcerated woman wants to avoid the trauma of prison, from sexual assault to solitary confinement, “she might be looking for any alternative,” Lowe writes. “She might even be willing to risk her life.”

Breathing Fire doesn’t shy away from complicated truths. For many women, the program offers relative dignity and purpose compared to the grim realities of incarceration. Besides receiving good food and exercise, they get to live in the forest of Malibu, where their families can visit them under pine trees rather than the fluorescent lights of a prison. Fire-threatened residents hold up signs to thank them for their work. Because the forestry programs are popular among imprisoned people, talked up as “a prison Shangri-La — lobster, shrimp, ocean breezes,” there is no sustained opposition to them, despite the low pay. But even these benefits are short-lived: Formerly incarcerated people face many obstacles if they seek to build a career in firefighting, given laws that prevent the state from hiring ex-felons and parolees. As Lowe pieces together Shawna Jones’ story through public records and interviews with her fellow inmate firefighters, family and friends, it becomes clear that Jones felt the firefighting program turned her life around. Had she lived, she would have tried to pursue it as a career.

In recent years, the firefighting program has dwindled. In 2016, 65% of California voters approved Proposition 57, which allows nonviolent felons with convictions for multiple crimes to seek early parole after they complete the full sentence for their most significant crime. Its backers aimed to ease prison overcrowding, but it also depleted the pool of potential firefighters. The proposition highlighted a point that David Fathi, the director of the ACLU National Prison Project, expressed to Lowe: “If these people are safe to be out and about and carrying axes and chainsaws, maybe they didn’t need to be in prison in the first place.” In the meantime, as questions surrounding criminal justice loom, the megafires will continue to rage, keeping California in perpetual need of firefighters.

Jenny Shank’s novel, The Ringer, won the High Plains Book Award. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic and The Washington PostEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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