As climate change makes fire seasons hotter and longer in the U.S., about 20,000 firefighters are currently working to contain blazes across the country. For decades now, some of California’s incarcerated population have been among those doing this lifesaving work, at great risk to their own lives.
One of those people was Shawna Lynn Jones. In 2016, she was working in one of the state’s fire camps and fighting the Mulholland Fire in Malibu when a boulder the size of a basketball struck her in the head. She died a day later, becoming the first incarcerated woman in the state to lose her life after battling a wildfire.
Her death became a catalyst for Jaime Lowe’s new book, Breathing Fire: Female Inmate Firefighters on the Frontlines of California’s Wildfires, which chronicles the life stories and challenges of incarcerated women like Jones, who are part of the state’s wildfire crews. The book also takes a look at the state’s history of mass incarceration, the origins of the fire-camp program and the impact of climate change in the state’s wildfires.
Lowe spoke with All Things Considered host Ailsa Chang about the surprisingly positive experiences of some of the women in this program, the pay disparity between the incarcerated and civilian firefighters and the challenges they faced finding firefighting work upon release. Listen in the audio player above and read on for highlights of the interview.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On how Shawna Jones’ death inspired her to start reporting
The first thing that captured my attention was that this woman had died and there wasn’t much said about her beyond her crime. The second part that really made me curious was that I didn’t know anything about the incarcerated firefighter program. It was something that I felt a sort of mix of shame and embarrassment and curiosity [about] because I grew up knowing those mountains, and I grew up knowing those hikes and that area and I had no idea that this program existed.
On how the conditions of fire camps differ from regular prisons
They are as different as you can possibly imagine. I mean, there are no fences, there’s no barbed wire, there’s very little evidence that it actually is a prison except for maybe a sign that indicates it’s a state prison. They are wooded; they’re in fire country and so they’re kind of nestled into wilderness and they’re small.
On the way the state refers to the women as “volunteers” and pays them less than minimum wage for life-threatening work
I think that observationally, you can’t necessarily say that you’re volunteering for something when it’s the lesser of two terribles. You wouldn’t volunteer to risk your life unless you were actually trying to avoid these situations in state prisons or in county jails that are so inhumane and so absolutely degrading in so many ways.
The $2.56 [pay] was actually when I started reporting, and they’ve since raised the daily rate to up to $5. I think the biggest problem is that this is actually one of the highest-paid jobs within prison industries through the state of California, which is shockingly low by comparison to civilian crews, and they’re risking their lives in the same way; they’re doing a lot of the same stuff that hand crews are doing through the forestry department. So obviously, I think that everyone would want to be paid more.
On how difficult it was for the women to build careers in firefighting after their release
The most surprising element of the reporting was that a lot of the women that I spoke with were very positive about their experiences in terms of what they actually went through, what they learned, the purpose that they felt.[Whitney] had a couple options when she got out, and none of them quite felt right. She returned to [firefighting] because it was a job that she knew and it was something that felt like the right choice at the time. [That’s] very rare, and I think it’s near impossible, actually, to get to that position. Marquet is a great example. She really wanted to be a firefighter, but she also had two minimum wage jobs that she had to go to, to support herself while she was in an associate’s program to get certification to become a firefighter. It’s just not easy in terms of, financially. She had two kids that she wanted to send to football camp and try and be a mom to. And when you’re on parole, it’s very hard to reenter into society.
On whether she thinks that using incarcerated individuals to fight fires is a good idea
I think the program has the potential to be a really good idea; I think that having the corrections department involved in it is not a good idea. I think that if there could be a possibility that instead of going to state prison and going to county jails, that you could actually serve time, be paid minimum wage, go to a conservation camp, have an apprenticeship that led to a job — because the state obviously is in desperate need of firefighters; it is on fire — [it could be a good idea]. But there are some basic elements, like being a firefighter who’s treated like a prisoner, like not being paid enough, like being put into physically harmful positions without proper health care: These are really problematic parts to the program and they’re so problematic that it leads me to believe that it shouldn’t exist in its current form.
Editor’s note: Lowe refers to the incarcerated women using only their first names — some of which have been changed — to protect their privacy. NPR reached out to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation about Lowe’s criticisms of its fire camps. It has yet to respond.