REVIEW: Breathing Fire : Female Inmate Firefighters on the Front Lines of California’s Wildfires by Jaime Lowe
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.
This sounded interesting when I requested the arc but is timely now that California is burning again. Unfortunately, that appears to be the new normal for the foreseeable future with years of megafires predicted for the state due to climate change and past incorrect fire management strategies. And who is out on the lines, risking life and limb for less than most fast food restaurants pay now? Inmates who see fire camp as a way out of the worse conditions at other prison facilities and/or as a possible career path for when they get out.
Lowe starts the book with the background of several women who were on the crews of the Malibu fire camp with Shawna Jones and discusses the fire that cost the young woman her life. Then she digs more into the California prison system and the climate conditions that are making fires more likely and more likely to be megafires.
It’s not quite what I was expecting yet it all ties into the fires that these inmates are trained to fight, how the women got incarcerated in the first place, and the difficulties they face re-entering society after finishing their time. New laws have been passed that could make it possible for these women (as well as the male inmate firefighters) to take their skills and knowledge to outside jobs. But the drugs, poverty, and other situations that landed them in prison? We’re still far behind working on them. B-