A dramatic, revelatory account of the female inmate firefighters who battle California wildfires.
Shawna was overcome by the claustrophobia, the heat, the smoke, the fire, all just down the canyon and up the ravine. She was feeling the adrenaline, but also the terror of doing something for the first time. She knew how to run with a backpack; they had trained her physically. But that’s not training for flames. That’s not live fire.
California’s fire season gets hotter, longer, and more extreme every year — fire season is now year-round. Of the thousands of firefighters who battle California’s blazes every year, roughly 30 percent of the on-the-ground wildland crews are inmates earning a dollar an hour. Approximately 200 of those firefighters are women serving on all-female crews.
In Breathing Fire, Jaime Lowe expands on her revelatory work for The New York Times Magazine. She has spent years getting to know dozens of women who have participated in the fire camp program and spoken to captains, family and friends, correctional officers, and camp commanders. The result is a rare, illuminating look at how the fire camps actually operate — a story that encompasses California’s underlying catastrophes of climate change, economic disparity, and historical injustice, but also draws on deeply personal histories, relationships, desires, frustrations, and the emotional and physical intensity of firefighting.
Lowe’s reporting is a groundbreaking investigation of the prison system, and an intimate portrayal of the women of California’s Correctional Camps who put their lives on the line, while imprisoned, to save a state in peril.
Journalist Lowe (Mental) tackles climate change, mass incarceration, and the "war on drugs" in this deeply reported if uneven account of California's inmate firefighting crews. Focusing on incarcerated women who make up this "near invisible workforce," Lowe recounts how Shawna Lynn Jones died in 2016, less than two months before her scheduled release, while fighting a fire in Malibu. Other profile subjects include Whitney (no last name given), a former supply analyst for Patagonia and ultra-marathoner who served time for gross vehicular manslaughter, and Marquet (no last name given), who tithed the roughly $2 per hour she made fighting fires. Lowe traces the origins of California's inmate firefighting program to a labor shortage caused by WWII, and contends that the state has saved billions of dollars by paying inmate firefighters paltry wages. She also critiques the criminal justice system at large, documenting prison overcrowding and inadequate health care for inmates, but the book is at its strongest when it leaves aside the statistics and stays focused on the lives of prisoners as they train to fight wildfires, reflect on their crimes, and struggle to find gainful employment after prison. The result is a powerful and affecting portrait of the "inherent flaws" of using prison labor to save California from climate disaster.