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.

Read the rest of the story at https://www.hcn.org/issues/53.7/ideas-books-the-incarcerated-women-battling-wildfires

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High Country News

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Working to inform and inspire people — through in-depth journalism — to act on behalf of the West’s diverse natural and human communities.

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