Jurisprudence

California Relies on Incarcerated Women to Put Out Wildfires

But the state offers them little in return.

A home entirely engulfed in flames.
The Dixie Fire tears through the Indian Falls neighborhood of Plumas County, California, on Saturday. Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

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If you stack up all the facts about fire season in the American West, they can get overwhelming. Right now, there are dozens of fires across the country. The largest of those, the Bootleg Fire, has grown to be the size of Los Angeles. And no matter where you live, you can physically feel the impact. Smoke has swirled from Oregon and California all the way to New York, which is where Jaime Lowe lives. “I was walking around yesterday and I could tell that the air quality was definitely affected,” Lowe said. “The sun was kind of orange and muted, which feels like we are in that apocalyptic science-fiction world.”

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Lowe is a reporter and a native Californian. She has become something of a fire expert. “I know so much about what’s happening in that state that I am like Chicken Little, running around going, ‘Everyone get out, but everyone stay because it’s also a great state.’ It’s a very conflicting feeling,” Lowe said.

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One of the reasons Lowe feels so conflicted about the way her home state deals with this climate crisis is because of whom the state recruits to fight fires each year. There are the usual union guys, the Hotshot crews that patrol inside the actual flames. Then, there are the incarcerated fire crews. Convicted felons, paid just a few dollars a day to cut fire lines alongside the professionals. Lowe didn’t even know about these crews until she was flipping through the paper a few years back and saw this headline: “Female Inmate Firefighter Dies, Following Injury in Malibu Blaze.” That inmate was a woman named Shawna Lynn Jones. She was just 22. Lowe has been writing about the incarcerated firefighters of California for going on five years now. She started with a story in the New York Times Magazine. Now, she’s written a book, Breathing Fire. She honed in on female firefighters in particular. 

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On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Lowe about this nearly invisible force of women who are keeping climate change away from the rest of us. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: You started your research at a fire camp called “Malibu 13.” That’s where Shawna, the firefighter who died, worked. Prisoners live there year-round, not just in fire season. They do constant drills, so they are prepared for an emergency. Malibu 13 is still operational now, part of California’s ongoing emergency response. Can you describe Malibu 13 to me as a place? What’s it like to be in this fire camp?

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Jaime Lowe: I’ll describe it in the way that Shawna’s mom described it when she visited Shawna, which was she felt like it was this gorgeous spiritual retreat and that she felt like Shawna was safe, because she was so worried about the calls that she kept getting from Shawna when she was in county. And then when she went to visit her at the camp, she looked around and it was wooded and it was deep in the hills of Malibu. It was in the unpopulated mountains that have wineries and horse ranches. And then nestled among all of this is this camp. And there aren’t any fences. There’s no barbed wire. There’s just this sign that indicates that it’s a state prison. One side of the camp is run by L.A. County Fire, and then the other side is run by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The women sleep on the CDCR side, and they train and hike and do all fire work on the fire side.

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I can understand, listening to you describe what the camp is like, why if I was an incarcerated person, I would want to spend time there, even if it meant I had to go fight fires in order to do it.

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Yeah, it’s really, really appealing. It’s why it’s such a nuanced topic. If you can believe it, the wages, which are $5 a day in camp now—when Shawna was there, it was about $2.50 a day—and $1 to $2 an hour when they were fighting fire, which is well below what a civilian crew makes, are the highest wage of prison labor. So that’s another reason that prisoners are really trying to get in there into the program, because you can actually save some money and have a little bit with you when you come home.

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Every woman that I talked to had feelings of responsibility, purpose, and actually felt connected to the work in some ways. I think they would all say they’d like to be paid in a way that’s appropriate, that they’d like to not be treated like prisoners, but almost all the women had this very specific nostalgia for being there. They all liked being appreciated for being out there and fighting fires and being able to fight fires—feeling like they couldn’t and then doing it.

Could you describe the work these women do a little bit? My understanding of what they’re trying to do when they go out into a fire is basically cut down foliage, so there’s nothing to burn.

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When they’re actually on an active fire, they’re working on a containment line, and they’re considered a hand crew, which is also very similar to federal wildland crews. Hotshots do a lot of the same work where they’re in like 12- to 14-person crews.

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And they have chainsaws and stuff, right?

They sure do, yeah. There’s four lead women, and there’s two teams of two people. And there is the first chainsaw and her bucker, and the second chainsaw and her bucker.

And the bucker basically helps clean up after the brush is cut down.

Exactly. So the saw will cut all of the big growth that’s in the way of creating the containment line. And the bucker will just throw—it’s oftentimes in these really treacherous mountainous terrain area—all the growth down and out of the way. And the effort is to get all of the roots out, get all of whatever could burn out of the way so that it’s just bare soil. The idea is that the fire won’t jump the line.

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It sounds like the conditions are really harsh that the women are working in. 

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Yes. These women, their bodies are not their own. Their bodies belong to the state. And that is something that was so clear to me.

What do you mean when you say that?

When a woman is in prison, they have to basically give over their physicality to this program. They 100 percent aren’t sleeping regularly. They are working out so much. They are doing physical labor that is so intense and that affects their bodies. One woman, Lily, told me, “I have a bad back forever and I can’t do certain jobs because of it, because I was on a fire and completely threw up my back. And I didn’t get treatment for it.” And she is in pain all the time.

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You’ve said that you got interested in all this because of reading about one woman’s death, Shawna. How did she die?

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She died at the end of a fire. It was, I think, 45 days before her release day. It was early morning and they were out creating a containment line. The women who were there with her told me there was another incarcerated crew, a male crew, that was above, and they weren’t supposed to be so close. But some pebbles started falling, and eventually a boulder fell. And it was a rock the size of a basketball. And it just fell and hit her right on the head, and she was out. There were attempts to do CPR by another woman who was on the crew, and she ended up getting airlifted to UCLA hospital and she was taken off life support.

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You have this one detail about Shawna and what happened to her. You talk about how when she was brought into the ICU, after she had just minutes before had a chainsaw in her hand—she’d been clearing brush and fighting fires—she got handcuffed to the gurney. And it really struck me because it seemed like there was such a disconnect between this recognition that the state of California needs incarcerated firefighters, while at the same time, the state seems to have trouble treating them like humans.

I would say that the state has trouble treating all incarcerated people as humans. That’s the point of their method of incarceration and maybe of all incarceration. And that’s something that we have to look at as a society in general. California is a huge bureaucracy, and with things like that, there’s procedure. Therefore, they have to be handcuffed, even if she is unconscious. That detail struck me, too. It felt so unnecessary and inhumane and also tragic.

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Can you give me a history about how this incarcerated firefighter program got started in the first place? Because my understanding is that other states do something similar, but just not on the scale of California.

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It was during World War II, actually, when a lot of men went off to war and California shifted its conservation program into a firefighting brigade of incarcerated people. They took over some of the camps. It was extremely successful and just kept expanding. That was in 1946.

Was using prisoners in this way mostly a money-saving thing for the state?

It really was used as both a money-saving thing and this idea of what prison should be at the time, which was that there shouldn’t be idle hands. Let’s put you to work and that’ll make your time better. You’ll learn something and be able to then be a better, more rehabilitated person. That is often aspirational.

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They told me that they don’t keep track of recidivism rates specific to the fire camp program, which is a blatant way of saying we don’t care if it works or not. We’re just going to say that it does well.

Well and their metric for “working” might not be anything to do with the women. It’s just about the fires.

Right. And certainly they point to this program as something that really helps prisoners. And I have talked with so many people that describe aspects of it that do help them. However, a lot of the fire captains and foremen talked about seeing the same women over and over again. They would get out, they would get into trouble again, get arrested, come back to fire camp.

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One of the reasons you wanted to extend your initial reporting, is that you wanted to see what happened once incarcerated firefighters got out. You tell in your book this particularly painful story that stood out to me. This is the story of Maria, who is another incarcerated firefighter who actually tried to revive Shawna that day. And I wonder if you can tell Maria’s story?

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Yeah, Maria’s story is especially tragic.

It sounds like Shawna’s death haunted her.

I think she was incredibly haunted by it. I think that’s right. And she ended up back at the California Institute for Women.

She left firefighting for a bit.

She was transferred back to CIW because she got into several fights. She was really upset. And then she went back to Puerta La Cruz for another season and she fell in love. She had what sounded like a really beautiful romance with another woman at camp. They would sneak into bed together after the COs would go to sleep, and they ended up getting married on the day that this other woman was released.

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She and her wife, both firefighters while they were incarcerated, they eventually both ended up getting out and then they tried to get jobs as firefighters, right?

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Yeah. They applied to be wildland firefighters and I’m not totally sure what happened, but they went through the application process and then they never heard back and didn’t get any follow-up. It’s not an easy process, and one aspect of the program is that you cannot apply to Cal Fire or municipal departments.

You can’t apply because California bans anyone with a felony conviction from getting EMS certified for at least 10 years. That means there’s a narrow path to employment as a federal firefighter, which some women still find impossible.

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So: Put yourself in these women’s shoes. They went to prison, and while they were there, they risked their lives to pick up a valuable skill. Then, once they’re out: There’s not a job in sight.

It’s not impossible. It’s just really, really hard, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of support in terms of connecting people who really want to continue the work. And there certainly wasn’t when Maria got out. But Maria and her wife, they applied to be firefighters and for whatever reason, it didn’t work. And then they both gave up on it.

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And they seemed to backslide.

Yeah, they did. They backslid. Her wife ended up back in prison and she really just wanted Maria to be clean. Maria for a little bit was still calling and keeping in touch and at a certain point just lost touch with her. And she was not doing well at all. And then late last year, she got really, really sick and ended up passing away from what appeared to be COVID.

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I think what’s so challenging about considering both Shawna’s story and Maria’s story is that you see in one story how difficult it is to do the work of being an incarcerated firefighter, and how the stakes are so high, and it can be fatal. And then on the other end, how the reward for that seems so paltry. Even though the women find the work rewarding and love it, the wider world has trouble recognizing it.

Yeah, in my mind, they need to be paid and they need to be treated as free people however that needs to be figured out. There are programs where you can opt to live in a halfway house and work at Target or Walmart. And I don’t see any reason why the state government shouldn’t follow the same pattern as that.

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Last year, California began baby steps toward recognizing the work of incarcerated firefighters. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law that was meant to make it easier for formerly incarcerated firefighters to get work after they’re released. Can you explain what the law does and whether you think it’s effective at what it does?

A.B. 2147 is meant to expedite an expungement record. It is supposed to address that immediate need to say you’re released from prison, I am going to file for an expedited expungement, and then I can apply for an EMT or EMS training, and then I can become hired by Cal Fire or a municipal crew, which previously was one of the many issues with this program.

So if I’m understanding this correctly, the law basically just helps you with the first little step. It’s not like it’s providing a path toward employment.

And not only that, but expungement doesn’t actually take away the appearance of a criminal record if an employer is doing a search. Cal Fire and municipal crews are pretty notorious for being tough in terms of hiring practices; they’re pretty discriminatory for both race and gender. And criminal records are going to still show up. There has to be buy-in that these agencies are actually going to hire people. And there’s no monitoring of that. There’s no insurance of that.

My hope is that the camps get completely changed into the California Conservation Corps and that there is an option when you’re being sentenced to serve the state, become a firefighter, get paid minimum wage, learn how to become a firefighter, and have a program that is set up with social services, with addiction meetings that you can then transfer all of that, the good aspects of the program, into jobs, if they’re wanted by people who have actually chosen to do that rather than this quote-unquote “volunteering” when you’re sentenced to state time.

That sounds amazing, but is it pie in the sky?

Yes. It feels like mass incarceration is intractable in terms of dealing with any change. But I do think that this is a really interesting program that could be useful in some ways if there were certain elements that were shifted.

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