Jaime LoweOct 6, 2021
Female Inmate Firefighters on the Front Line of California's Wildfires
A dramatic, revelatory account of the female inmate firefighters who battle California wildfires for less than a dollar an hour On February 23, 2016, Shawna Lynn Jones stepped into the brush to fight a wildfire that had consumed ten acres of terrain on a steep ridge in Malibu. Jones carried fifty pounds of equipment and a chainsaw to help contain the blaze. As she fired up her saw, the earth gave way under her feet and a rock fell from above and struck her head, knocking her unconscious. A helicopter descended to airlift her out. As it took off, she was handcuffed to the gurney. She was neither a desperate Malibu resident nor a professional firefighter. She was a female inmate firefighter, briefly trained and equipped, and paid one dollar an hour to fight fires while working off her sentence. As California has endured unprecedented wildfires over the past decade, the state has come to rely heavily on its prison population, with imprisoned firefighters making up at least 40 percent of Cal Fire’s on-the-ground fire crews. Of those imprisoned workers, 250 are women.
In Breathing Fire: Female Inmate Firefighters on the Front Line of California's Wildfires (MCD, 2021), Jaime Lowe expands on her revelatory work for The New York Times Magazine to follow Jones and her fellow female inmate firefighters before, during, and—if they’re lucky—after incarceration. Lowe takes us into their lives, into the prisons and the women’s decisions to join the controversial program, into the fire camps where they live and train, and onto the front lines, where their brave work is unquestionably heroic—if often thankless.