The Incarcerated Women Risking Their Lives to Fight Wildfires
‘Breathing Fire,’ a new book by Jaime Lowe, delves into the personal stories behind California’s inmate firefighter program
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On February 25, 2016, 22-year-old Shawna Lynn Jones died from a blow to the head by a falling boulder while fighting the Mulholland Fire in Malibu, California. She was part of Malibu 13-3, a 12-person crew of inmates who work as firefighters under supervision of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the U.S. Forest Service. A Los Angeles Times article about her death stated that Jones was the first woman and “just the third conservation camp inmate to die since the program began in 1943.” Just is quite the word to use in such a sentence, considering the cruelty of the system that led to Jones’s death. In her new book Breathing Fire, writer Jaime Lowe offers a vivid picture of the injustices that affected Jones and her fellow firefighters.
Expanding on a 2017 feature she wrote for The New York Times Magazine, Lowe examines the fallout from Jones’s death and tells the story of the thousands of women inmates who help fight California’s wildfires every year. Male inmates have been firefighting since 1946, and women were given the option to do so in the 1980s. Public officials considered this a matter of fairness, Lowe writes, and in fact incarcerated women also tend to see the firefighting work program as a desirable alternative to the inhumane conditions of prison. The compounds that house inmate firefighters, called conservation camps, have better food and living conditions than the state’s prisons, and they offer participants the chance to earn credits that go toward shortening their sentences. In the book, Lowe describes getting to know many incarcerated firefighters who tell her the work has changed their lives for the better or that they’re hoping to get jobs in firefighting or forestry when they’re out.
But Lowe makes a clear distinction between professional firefighting in the free world and the carceral system’s employment of inmates as firefighters. “All the women I spoke with could see the benefits of the firefighting program, but most bristled at the idea that they had volunteered,” Lowe writes, citing the litany of reasons an inmate would consider such a dangerous job more desirable than the conditions in prison, which include sexual assault, neglect for the sick or mentally ill, and poor nutrition. “‘Volunteer’ is a relative term for the incarcerated.”
And for all the comparative perks, offering wildland firefighting as an alternative prison experience is certainly not a much more humane way to treat prisoners. Inmate firefighters are paid a salary of just five dollars a day, which includes the 24-hour periods when they are on call for fires, plus one dollar per hour when actively firefighting. They work on the ground as hand crews, hiking in to clear vegetation early on in the fire and “mopping up” by stomping out embers at the end. “Basically, the hand crews are the ones in the trenches,” a camp commander named Keith Radey tells Lowe, “and they’re mostly made up of inmate crews.” Depending on the year, inmates might make up as much as 30 percent of California’s wildland firefighter crews. And while program spokespeople emphasize that inmates are considered just as capable as professional firefighters, they never train with live fire. Many of the women recount how scared they were to see a real fire for the first time—while fighting it. In a striking scene, as a particularly erratic fire barrels toward one inmate crew, their foremen tell them that they’re “seeing action that most free world firefighters never see.”
Lowe spends a couple of chapters tracing the history of the fire program back to the ugly roots of California’s carceral system and slavery practices. The country’s first female firefighter, for example, was a Black woman named Molly Williams who worked as a servant for the man who had once enslaved her. The man was part of a volunteer firefighter corps, and Williams sometimes stepped in for crew members during fires. Historians often frame Williams’s 19th-century heroism as entirely voluntary, despite the questionable power dynamics of her situation. In the 1900s, inmate labor drove the westward expansion of Los Angeles and the construction of the Pacific Coast Highway. More recently, women and people of color have been particularly affected by the war on drugs and three-strikes laws (still in effect in California) that give repeat offenders sentences of 25 years to life; the number of incarcerated women in the U.S. increased more than 750 percent between 1980 and 2019.
As the inmate population in California has grown, the number of incarcerated firefighters has too, doubling from the 1960s to today. And officials have never been coy about the reason; many have lauded conservation camps as cost-effective solutions to prison overcrowding and fire management. Because it’s so much less expensive than hiring more firefighters at a fair wage, the California prison system’s forestry program saves taxpayers about $100 million a year, and has saved the state $1.2 billion since its inception. In 2014, the office of California’s Attorney General (then led by Kamala Harris) argued against reducing the number of inmates in state prisons because it would “severely impact fire camp participation… in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.”
Whether or not the women have had a positive experience at the conservation camps, most of their stories amply illustrate that the U.S. carceral system is not built for justice or protecting inmates. Even the women who love the program so much that they want to become firefighters when they get out of prison will likely be barred from many of those jobs—or at least required to jump through lots of hoops to apply—because of their felony convictions. In 2017, Lowe met a woman at a conservation camp named Alisha, who told her that she was already taking classes in hopes of getting a job on an engine when she’s out. In 2020, when Lowe told Alisha about a new law that makes it slightly easier for former inmates to get firefighting jobs, Alisha said, “Oh god, that’s so dope. I wish I was out.” By that time, she’d been given a life sentence after an attempted robbery, because it was her third offense.
Lowe, who began reporting this book in 2016, excels at detailing the injustices that make up these women’s lives. She spends much of the book following a handful of women’s stories from childhood to arrest to conservation camp. It seems wise to devote so much space to this level of personal narrative; in recent years California’s women inmate firefighters have seen no shortage of press coverage, much of which treats the program as a novelty or discusses it in broad, statistical strokes. Breathing Fire brings nuance to the lived experiences of the women inmates who are helping the state face an increasingly grim future of wildfire, and to Jones, the first of them to die on the job. But it never loses sight of the central truth: they should never have been asked to do this in the first place.