On the Front Lines of California’s Wildfires

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S1: 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 all around the country. The largest, 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 lives.

S2: I mean, I was walking around yesterday and I could tell that the air quality was definitely affected. The sun was kind of orange and muted. Which feels like we are in that apocalyptic science fiction world.

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S1: Jaime is a reporter. She’s also a native Californian, she’s become something of a fire expert.

S2: I feel like 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.

S1: One of the reasons Jaime feels so conflicted about the way her home state deals with this climate crisis is because of who the state recruits to fight its fires each year. They’re the usual union guys, the hotshot crews that patrol inside the actual flames. And then there are the incarcerated fire crews, convicted felons paid just a few dollars a day to cut fire lines alongside the professionals, Jaime didn’t even know about these fire 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 Chunlin Jones. She was just 22.

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S2: I read the story and I was like, you know, it was like five hundred words so short, it was really short. And Shana was very succinctly represented.

S1: Why did this story resonate with you?

S2: There was something about not knowing who Shawna was. And I think I just felt I felt I think I was a little bit of shame of my own ignorance, but I didn’t know this program existed. And yet I grew up in L.A. I am from California. This is something that is a program that’s existed since nineteen forty six. When you think about the numbers of incarcerated firefighters that have protected the state over the course of the years that the program has existed, they’ve been a huge force and that they’re an invisible force was really striking to me.

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S1: Today on the show, we’re going to talk about the women who are keeping climate change away from the rest of us. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Jaime Lowe has been writing about the incarcerated firefighters of California for going on five years now. She started with the story in the New York Times magazine. Now she’s written a whole book. It’s called Breathing Fire. She honed in on female firefighters in particular. The folks overseeing the women’s work said they were some of the most thorough firefighters out there.

S2: That’s what every four men and captain told me. They just said that they were there a little bit slower and maybe not quite as strong. But everything they do is better. Like, OK, that’s great. It’s great.

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S1: Jaime started her research at a fire camp called Malibu 13, that’s where Shauna, the firefighter who died, worked. Prisoners live there year round, not just in fire season. They do constant drills, so they’re prepared for an emergency. Malibu 13 is still operational now, part of California’s ongoing emergency response. And one more thing. Jaime recorded some of her conversations with the firefighters she spoke with. You’re going to hear some of that tape throughout the show today. We’ve withheld these women’s names to protect their privacy since we know the Malibu 13 is still active. Can you just describe it to me as a place like what’s it like to be in this fire camp?

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S2: All describe it in the way that Diana Shannon’s mom described it when she visited Shauna, which was she felt like it was this gorgeous spiritual retreat and that she felt like Shauna was safe because she was so worried about the calls that she kept getting from Shonto. And 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 like, you know, deep in the hills of Malibu, which it was very separate from the Malibu of reality shows. And it was really the kind of unpopulated mountains that have like wineries and very spread out kind of horse ranches. And then nestled amongst all of this is this camp, and there aren’t any fences. There’s no barbed wire. There’s just this kind of sign that indicates that it’s a state prison. On one side of the camp is run by L.A. County Fire. And then the other side is run by DCR.

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S1: Car is the prison system.

S2: Yeah, the California Department of Corrections Rehabilitation. So the women sleep on the side and they train and hike and do all sort of fire work on the fire side.

S1: 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.

S2: Yeah, it’s really, really appealing. It also, it’s why it’s such a nuanced topic is because if you can believe that the wages, which are five dollars a day and camp now, when Shawna was there, it was about two fifty a day and like an hour, a dollar to two dollars an hour when they’re fighting fire, which is well below what a civilian crew makes, but it’s also 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 make some money and save some money and have a little bit like with you when you come home. And when we’re talking about money, we’re talking about maybe hundreds of dollars, which within prison labor industries is a ton of money. Every woman that I talked to had feelings of responsibility, purpose, and like they actually felt connected to the work. And some ways, I mean, I think they would all. Say they 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 kind of had this very specific nostalgia for being there, not the present part, but that they worked that hard, that they got it done. I mean,

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S3: if it wasn’t for you, honestly, I wouldn’t know what my limitations are, you know what I mean? I wouldn’t know what I’d be capable of or what I could handle mentally, emotionally. And, you know, I knew what I could handle physically if I worked before, you know, but to be put in those type of situations in those scenarios where you have like a fire like this with inches in front of your face and you’re feeling in your life, you know what I mean? Like that like puts your mind into your thinking on a level, you

S2: know what I mean? They all liked being appreciated for getting being out there and fighting fires and being able to fight fires, like being feeling like they couldn’t and then doing it.

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S1: The women work in these teams where everyone has really specific jobs, and I wonder if you can describe that a little bit, because my understanding of what they’re trying to do when they go out into a fire is basically cut down foliage. So there’s like nothing to burn. It creates like a ring of dead area that the fire can’t jump, right?

S2: Sure. So so a containment line is what they’re generally they do. There are like two different things, like 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 percent crews and

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S1: they have like chainsaws and stuff,

S2: right? They sure do, yeah. So the two leaders, like 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 bunker

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S1: and the bunkers basically help clean up after the brush cut down.

S2: 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 because it’s oftentimes in these really treacherous mountainous terrain areas and they’ll just throw all the growth down and just get out, get it out of the way. And the effort is to get down there, get all of the routes out, get all of whatever could burn out of the way so that it’s just bare soil. And the idea is that the fire will well, if it can’t burn, it won’t jump the line.

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S1: Well, it sounds like the conditions are really harsh that the women are working in.

S2: Yes, these women are they are their bodies are not their own. They their bodies belong to the state. And that is something that was so clear to me when they were talking about, you know, being out there and fighting fires like it was.

S1: Yeah. What do you mean when you say that?

S2: I mean when a woman is in prison. They have to basically give over their physicality to this program like they one hundred 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 that she was like, 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’ll never I didn’t get treatment for it. And she is in pain all the time.

S1: You’ve said that you got interested in all this because of reading about one woman’s death. Shauna, how did she die?

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S2: So she died sort of at the end of a fire. It was, I think, forty five days before her release date. It was early morning and they were out creating a containment line. We got there at 3:00 in the morning. How total were those planes or how widespread were they?

S4: They were they were like. Ten feet tall. I think, or Paula. And. It was it was a lamonte and.

S2: And what the women who were there with her told me was that 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 they 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, she just lost color, there was 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.

S1: There you have this one detail about Shauna and what happened to her. Were you talk about how when she was brought into the ICU? After she had just like minutes, hours before she’d had a chainsaw in her hand, she’d been clearing brush and fighting fires. She got handcuffed to the gurney. And it just it really struck me because it seemed like there was such a disconnect and I wondered if through your reporting you were able to make sense of it between this recognition, officially, the state of California needs incarcerated firefighters. Well, at the same time, the state seems to have trouble treating them like humans.

S2: Well, I would say that the state has trouble treating all incarcerated people as humans. I think that 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. I think California is it’s a huge bureaucracy and a lot of times things like that procedure where they’re like, well, this is somebody who is a prisoner. Therefore, they have to be handcuffed. Even if she is unconscious, that will happen. And then that detail, the way that I learned about that, was because one of the nurses had told her mom and her mom told me that that was what she how she arrived at the hospital. And that struck me, too. I mean, I was. Don’t. So. Unnecessary and humane and also tragic.

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S1: When we come back, why the state of California created this program in the first place and why it’s so hard for these firefighters to get jobs once they’re out. 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.

S2: Sure. So it was it during World War Two, actually, when a lot of men went off to war and California sort of 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. So that was in nineteen forty six

S1: was using prisoners in this way, mostly a money saving thing for the state.

S2: It really was used as both a money saving thing and this idea of what prison should be at the time, which was the site, the sort of there shouldn’t be idle hands and let’s put you to work and and that’ll make your time better. And you’ll learn something and be able to then, you know, be better, more rehabilitated person. I think that that is often aspirational.

S1: One reason Jaime skeptical of the state’s claims about how beneficial this work is to the firefighters themselves is that no agency keeps track of women’s outcomes once they leave.

S2: They told me that they don’t keep track of recidivism rates specific to the in the fire camp program, which is sort of a blatant way of saying we don’t care if it works or not. We’re just going to say that it does well in

S1: their metric for working might not be anything to do with the women. It’s just about fires.

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S2: 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 foreman talked about seeing the same women over and over again that they would get out, they would get into trouble again, get arrested, come back to fire camp.

S1: One of the reasons you wanted to extend your initial reporting, which came out a few years back and turn into a book, is that you wanted to see what happened once incarcerated firefighters got out. And you tell you tell in your book this particularly painful story that stood out to me, which was kind of like a coda to the story of Shauna, who start the book with the firefighter who died. This is the story of Maria, who is another incarcerated firefighter who actually tried to revive Shauna that day. And I wonder if you can tell Maria’s story to kind of understand what happens as these prisoners who have done this thing that the state says so valuable to them, like what happens as they reenter the world and come up against all of the things that formerly incarcerated people come up against.

S2: Yeah, Maria’s story is especially tragic, and

S1: it sounds like Shawna’s death haunted her.

S2: I think she was incredibly haunted by it. I think that’s right, and she ended up back at CIW, the California Institute for Women.

S1: So she left Fire-fighting for a bit.

S2: She was actually kicked out as the right word. She was transferred back to Seattle because she got into several fights that I think this is according to a few different people. But she was really she was really upset. And so she she was transferred back to CIW and then she went back to Puerto La Cruz for another season and she fell in love. She had this kind of what sounded like a really. Beautiful romance with another woman at camp named Noel, and they would kind of sneak into bed together after the CEOs would go to sleep because they would check and they ended up getting married on the day that this other woman was released.

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S1: It sounded like to me that she 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.

S2: Yeah, and so 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 sort of get any follow up. There was no it’s not an easy process. And one aspect of the program is that you cannot. Apply to Cal Fire or municipal departments,

S1: 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 this narrow path to employment as a federal firefighter, which some women still find it impossible.

S4: So a bunch of us did that in March training course, and I did it, and it was like seeing it’s like a week long, you go every day, it’s like school, you know, and and then you get a certificate at the end. But because of my felony, they they didn’t they didn’t give me that certificate. And so I texted my lawyer. So he like called the guy who was on who sent the paperwork. And I tried to like. And. And they just wouldn’t do it.

S1: So put yourself in these women’s shoes, they went to prison and while they were there, they risked their lives to pick up this valuable skill. But once they’re out, there isn’t a job in sight.

S2: 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. There certainly wasn’t when a lot of the women that I interviewed got out. But Marianne, our wife, they applied to be firefighters for whatever reason. They either didn’t they didn’t get the right applications and they didn’t get the timing and they did something. It was either them. It was either somebody didn’t follow up with them on the other end. It didn’t work, and then they both kind of gave up on that and assumption that slide. Yeah, they did, they backslid and her wife ended up back in prison and then Maria and she really just wanted Maria to be clean and Maria then I think 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 COVA.

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S1: I think what’s so challenging about considering both Shauna’s story and Maria’s story, the story of Maria and her wife is that you see it 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. But. The reward for that seems so paltry, even though even though the women find the work rewarding and love it the wider world. Has trouble recognizing it.

S2: I mean, in my mind, they need to be paid and they need to be treated as free people, however that needs to be figured out by it. It could be there are programs where where you can opt to live in a halfway house and work at Target or Wal-Mart or minimum wage jobs and wear an ankle bracelet and get paid minimum wage. And I don’t see any reason why the state government shouldn’t follow the same. Pattern. Yeah.

S1: Last year, California began like baby steps towards recognizing the work of incarcerated firefighters. 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?

S2: Sure, so a B twenty one forty seven is meant to expedite an expungement record, so it is supposed to address that sort of 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 a hired by Cal Fire or Municipal Crew, which previously was one of the many issues with this program.

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S1: So if I’m understanding this correctly, the law basically just helps you with the first little step, like it says, OK, we’ll find some way to smooth the way towards expungement of your record, which is great, I guess, but it’s not like it’s providing a path towards employment.

S2: Right. And not only that, but expungement doesn’t actually take away the appearance of a criminal record if an employer is doing a search. So 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 Baen that these agencies are actually going to hire people and there’s no monitoring of that. There’s no insurance that the expungement themselves have to go through. A judge and the D.A. can appeal whatever the judge’s decision. And so there’s several legal aspects of it. But a newly released person is going to have to navigate and then to then be have the wherewithal to say, OK, now I’m going to take on the legal system and I’m going to apply for an expedited expungement. And to know all of that is going to be really hard.

S1: But Jaime says this moment could be an opportunity. If the state seizes, it expands on this legislation, and they may need to do that because fires are getting worse. The state’s been forced by the courts to send many prisoners home to relieve overcrowding. And then covid emptied the prisons even further. So some of the correctional departments fire camps have actually closed.

S2: My hope is that those 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 done that, who have chosen to have actually chosen to do that rather than this quote unquote, volunteering when you’re sentence to state is amazing.

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S1: But is it pie in the sky?

S2: Yes, but I mean, I, I don’t know. It’s 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.

S1: Jaime Low, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: Mary, thank you so much for having me. It’s been great.

S1: Jaime Lowe is a journalist and the author of Breathing Fire Female Inmate Firefighters on the Front Lines of California’s Wildfires. And that’s the show. What Next is produced by Davis Land, Danielle Hewitt, Allena Schwartz, Carmel Delshad and Mary Wilson special Shout out to Jaime for sharing her tape with us and thanks to the firefighters who shared their stories with her. Thanks to Alison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery, I’m Mary Harris, I’ll catch you back in this feed tomorrow.