Joshua Grant Prisoners' Rights

Invisible Warriors: California’s Incarcerated Female Firefighters

Despite minimal pay, rigorous training, and insufficient care for grueling injuries, incarcerated firefighters risk their lives to combat deadly fires during California's wildfire season.
In recent years, California’s wildfire season has become one of the greatest challenges facing the state’s population. Nearly one-third of the people risking their lives to fight these deadly fires are incarcerated, many of them women, including Amita Mota (center), shown here in July, 2013.

By Joshua Grant / San Quentin News

Risking their lives for minimal pay, incarcerated female firefighters in California work to save residential neighborhoods and national parks. 

Incarcerated women and men currently account for up to 30% of California’s wildland firefighting crews, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Aug. 1. 

“Arguably, inmate crews are working the hardest, most dangerous job in California right now,” wrote Jamie Lowe, author of Breathing Fire: Female Inmate Firefighters on the Front Lines of California’s Wildfires

“They are a literal army, fighting to save the state from a climate catastrophe.” 

Incarcerated firefighters first hit Lowe’s radar after she read an article about Shawna Lynn Jones — who died battling a 10-acre flare up in 2016. 

Lowe told The Times that Jones’ story captured her attention for two reasons: First, Jones was part of a small California percentage of female firefighters. More significantly, Jones fought fires as a prisoner. 

Lowe would spend the next five years documenting the lives of the women of the Conservation Camp program and writing Breathing Fire. The July 27 Times story described it as “gritty outdoor journalism.” 

“Our carceral state is so broken that ‘choosing’ to risk one’s life is often described as a privilege, because it is — it’s paradise compared to county jails or state prisons,” wrote Lowe. 

While hiking through the Mesa Peak Motorway, Matt Jaffe of the Chronicle came across the Malibu Conservation Camp #13, on which Lowe’s story is based. 

“I rounded a bend along the crest and came upon a fire crew,” said Jaffe. “…Someone shouted ‘Hiker!’ and I noticed that the orange-clad team was made up entirely of women. 

“Usually when you meet firefighters working in the mountains, there are friendly greetings and maybe a bit of banter,” he continued. “But the members of this crew all avoided eye contact.” 

But then Jaffe saw the “CDCR PRISONER” on their clothes and figured out why. 

California has depended on prison labor for years. 

“They may not realize it, but when Californians place those ‘Thank You Firefighters!’ signs on overpasses and in front yards, they’re thanking prisoners,” said Jaffe. 

He further noted how — when one drives Highway One along the coastal forest areas and also many roads into the Sierra and Yosemite National Forest — these scenic opportunities were made by an incarcerated workforce. 

Besides offering prisoners a bit more comfort than the normal penitentiary existence, Lowe said fire camps allow them to see their families in “a nice place — a respectable place.” 

Lowe’s book details the tough physical training and rigorous work firefighting entails. Incarcerated fire crews face grueling injuries and insufficient care, often sustaining lifelong injuries. 

“Your feet are hot and tired and have a pulse of their own,” said an incarcerated firefighter named Marquet. “You feel like you can’t breathe, but you’re breathing. Your face feels like it’s about to melt off, but it’s there.” 

Lowe addressed the huge catch to all of the hard work incarcerated firefighters go through. When they finally get released, they often can’t put their skills to use because of a criminal record. 

California Assembly Bill 2147, signed last September, may help by allowing for expungement of criminal records. 

Former firefighters can apply for expungements, but district attorneys can challenge them and judges can deny them. 

“For many of these women, firefighting, despite its dangers and physical demands, is a source of pride and hope,” said Jaffe. 

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