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Breathing Fire: Female Inmate Firefighters on the Front Lines of California's Wildfires

How do you want your outrage provoked and your heart broken?

Maybe from the wildfires. Thanks to climate change and thoughtless overdevelopment, extreme wildfires are becoming the year-round norm, more frequent, burning bigger, longer, faster and more destructive than ever.

Or maybe from a system that incarcerates thousands of people from impoverished or abusive environments for petty crimes, and then uses those inmates, with minimal training and for slave wages, to do the dangerous work of fighting wildfires.

Or maybe from a broken prison system that is so physically threatening and psychologically tormenting that for many inmates, volunteering for the wildfire fighting camps seems an improvement despite the danger.

Or maybe it will be all three, once you’ve finished reading Breathing Fire: Female Inmate Firefighters on the Front Lines of California's Wildfires, by Jaime Lowe, just published today..

Many states, including my current home state of Arizona, use inmates for fighting wildfires, but California is at the top of the list. Some 30% of the state’s wildfire crews are inmates, and they can be up to 70% of the crew in some instances. Prison labor is common in general, and is in fact authorized by the very 13th Constitutional Amendment that otherwise abolished slavery: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”  But fighting fires is in a category of its own: work that is extremely dangerous and that normally requires years of training.

As the frequency, breadth and ferocity of wildfires increase due to climate change, states are increasingly under pressure to put more bodies into the fight, and where better to find those bodies than the prison population. States also like to tout the great savings to taxpayers generated by paying inmates a couple bucks an hour rather than hiring and training hundreds of professionals (ignoring, of course, the costs of mass incarceration and the millions raked in by for-profit prisons). (Click READ MORE below for the rest of this post!)

Lowe’s book, expanded from her 2017 article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, is a gripping read, filled with personal stories both terrifying and heartbreaking. First of all, there are the exhausting physical challenges and outright danger they face, hiking up mountains and down ravines, toting 30-pound chainsaws and other equipment on long shifts into uncontrolled wildfires.

Acreage doesn’t matter when you’re tasked with hiking into a wall of flames in an attempt to control them. One lick of fire can singe skin; one inhalation can choke a life; one acre can turn into ten or twenty or a hundred or a hundred thousand. When the women of crew 13-5 unloaded, they saw a ten-foot-tall wall of orange-white-red flames curling upward toward the fingers of chaparral and beyond. Braided hot ribbons of fire were mutating into plumes of black smoke. Smoke that blacked out the already dark night….

Bailey sent them down a steep ravine in order to enter the canyon area. There were no established paths, so the women followed Selena, as they were trained to, in a tight single-file formation. It was dark, and the terrain was uneven and jagged. The air was congested with blackened particles. The crew went down, then up, then down again, and up again, cutting, cutting, cutting along the way. Granite rocks embedded in the earth and small trees with stubborn stumps made forward progress challenging. They carved a line that would keep the flames at bay.

One of the women inmates involved in this wildfire fight died in the effort.

Equally heartbreaking are the backstories of these women inmates. They are stories of broken homes, of poverty and homelessness, of physical and sexual abuse. They are stories of mistakes made, often of petty crimes which landed them in prison. They are stories of long sentences for petty crimes mandated by the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ sentencing statutes signed into law by many states and the federal government in the 1990s.  They are stories of long sentences mandated under ‘War of Drugs’ laws. Both of these mandates fell hardest on those suffering from addiction and mental health issues.

Between 1980 and 2019, the number of women incarcerated in the United States increased by 750%. Although overall there are still more men in prison, incarceration rates are growing faster for women, and they are now among the fastest growing prison populations. Over half are mothers; over a quarter of a million children have their single mothers in jail. The United States has the highest incarceration rate for women in the world, with 30% of the world’s imprisoned women.

The final heartbreak comes from reading why these women volunteer for such grueling, exhausting and dangerous work, where some have died and an estimated 1000 inmates suffered injuries requiring hospitalization just in the five years between 2013 and 2018. The biggest reason is simply that general population prisons are so dangerous. The women face violence, which guards too often ignore; physical, mental and sexual abuse at the hands of the guards; arbitrary and demeaning restrictions; disgusting meals and inadequate health care.

The fire camps, in contrast, offer slightly more freedom, better food, better pay (though still very low), and better visitation rights with family. There is the opportunity to be out in nature rather than confined to a cell with little daylight and minimal outdoor time.  There is the bond that forms among the women as they work together in the face of danger. There is the pride in their physical training and prowess. There is the sense of accomplishment and meaning that they feel, doing work that offers such vital protection to the community (and often those communities are wealthy enclaves, such as in the canyons around Los Angeles, communities where they would not be welcomed). 

Many of the inmates hope to use the experience as a springboard to similar professional employment after their release, but few make the transition. Their criminal records and employment records work against them. Last year, California governor Gavin Newsom signed a law allowing former inmates who worked the wildfire brigades to petition the court to expunge their record, but this has only opened the door to former inmates a crack. For the most part, they are barred from doing the work in freedom that they so bravely did in prison