The incarcerated women who fight California’s wildfires

The incarcerated women who fight California’s wildfires

31 August 2017

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USA –  Shawna Lynn Jones climbed from the back of a red truck with ‘‘L.A. County Fire’’ printed on its side. Ten more women piled out after her, at a spot on the border of Agoura Hills and Malibu, in Southern California. They could see flames in the vicinity of Mulholland Highway, from a fire that had been burning for about an hour. Jones and her crew wore helmets and yellow Nomex fire-retardant suits; yellow handkerchiefs covered their mouths and necks. Each woman carried 50 pounds of equipment in her backpack: gloves, flares, food, full water bottles, safety and medical gear and an emergency shelter, in case they were surrounded by flames. As the ‘‘second saw,’’ Jones was one of two women who carried a chain saw with her. She was also one of California’s 250 or so female-inmate firefighters.

Jones worked side by side with Jessica Ornelas, the ‘‘second bucker,’’ who collected whatever wood Jones cut down. Together they were responsible for ‘‘setting the line,’’ which meant clearing potential fuel from a six-foot-wide stretch of ground between whatever was burning and the land they were trying to protect. If they did their job right, a fire might be contained. But any number of things could quickly go wrong — a slight wind shift, the fall of a burning tree — and the fire would jump the break.

‘‘This is what I get for wishing for live flames,’’ Jones said to Ornelas on the truck ride.

It was just after 3 a.m. on Feb. 25, 2016, when Malibu 13-3, the 12-woman crew Jones belonged to, arrived at the Mulholland fire, ahead of any aerial support or local fire trucks. The inmates — including men, roughly 4,000 prisoners fight wildfires alongside civilian firefighters throughout California — immediately went to work. They operated in hookline formation, moving in order of rank, which was determined by task and ability. Fire captains divide the line into the cutting section and the scraping section. The first saw, or hook, leads; second saw is next. The Pulaskis, nicknamed for their tool, a type of shovel, follow. The McLeods, also named for their hand tool, rake the scorched remains. Mulholland was Jones’s first fire as second saw; she was promoted the previous week. It took only four months for captains to notice her after she began training, and she quickly rose from the back of the hookline, where all inmates start, to the front.

This part of Southern California, inland from the Pacific Coast Highway, is full of ravines and dry brush. Season after season, its protected lands are prone to landslides, flash floods and wildfires. The women scrambled over a slope that was full of loose soil and rocks, which made digging the containment line — a trench of sorts — even more challenging. ‘‘It was very steep,’’ Tyquesha Brown, a member of the crew who was there, told me. ‘‘The fire was jumping.’’ As the crew moved toward the flames, tools in hand, the firefighters kept a distance of 10 feet between each other and called out conditions.

 Female inmate firefighters of Malibu Camp at the Detwiler fire in Mariposa County in July. Credit Peter Bohler for The New York Times

Ornelas could tell that Jones was struggling with the weight of her chain saw as they hiked up the slope. ‘‘I was pushing her, she was sliding down,’’ Ornelas says. ‘‘It was just too heavy for her. She wasn’t used to the weight.’’ With every step they took forward, it felt as if they were slipping at least one step back. But by 7:30 a.m., a little more than a third of the fire was considered contained. Crew 13-3 had done its job: the fire didn’t jump the line; it didn’t threaten homes or ranches or coastal properties.

By 10 the next morning, Jones was dead. She was 22. Her three-year sentence had less than two months to go.

California’s inmate firefighters choose to take part in the grinding and dangerous work they do. And they get paid for it, though not much. They have to pass a fitness test before they can qualify for fire camps. But once they are accepted into a camp, the training they receive, which often lasts as little as three weeks, is significantly less than the three-year apprenticeship that full-time civilian firefighters get.

Inmate labor in California goes back to the mid-19th century and the earliest official state prison, located on the Waban, a 268-ton ship. In 1852, its prisoners slept on deck at night and spent their days building San Quentin, the state’s first permanent prison. By 1923, California’s road crews, made up of inmates who worked on highway construction, were receiving wages, albeit low wages, for their labor. During World War II, California turned its prisons into factories for the military industry and moved inmates into the temporary forestry camps of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public work-relief program created during the Depression. They built roads, harvested crops and repaired infrastructure. In 1946, as part of Gov. Earl Warren’s Prisoner Rehabilitation Act, the state opened Camp Rainbow which — under the joint supervision of the state’s Division of Forestry and the California Department of Corrections (later renamed the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger) — housed inmates to clear fire lines. This setup was so cost-effective that by 1959 Gov. Edmund G. Brown promised to double the size of the Conservation Camp Program. It now partners with Cal Fire and the Los Angeles County Fire Department. ‘‘Any fire you go on statewide, whether it be small or large, the inmate hand crews make up anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the total fire personnel,’’ says Lt. Keith Radey, the commander who is in charge of a camp where women train.

 Dionne Davis of Rainbow Camp. Credit Peter Bohler for The New York Times

 Sarah Meenahan of Rainbow Camp. Credit Peter Bohler for The New York Times

When they work, California’s inmates typically earn between 8 cents and 95 cents an hour. They make office furniture for state employees, state license plates, prison uniforms, anything that any state institution might use. But wages in the forestry program, while still wildly low by outside standards, are significantly better than the rest. At Malibu 13, one of three conservation camps that house women, the commander, John Scott, showed me a printout: Inmate firefighters can make a maximum of $2.56 a day in camp and $1 an hour when they’re fighting fires.

Those higher wages recognize the real dangers that inmate firefighters face. In May, one man was crushed by a falling tree in Humboldt County; in July, another firefighter died within a week after accidentally cutting his leg and femoral artery on a chain saw. But, after visiting three camps over a year and a half, I could see why inmates would accept the risks. Compared with life among the general prison population, the conservation camps are bastions of civility. They are less violent and offer more space. They smell of eucalyptus, the ocean, fresh blooms. They provide barbecue areas for families who visit; one camp has a small cabin where relatives can stay with an inmate for up to three days. They have woodworking areas, softball fields and libraries full of donated mysteries and romance novels. ‘‘I always up-talk the program,’’ an inmate named Amber Sapp told me. She noted how the quality of time served is so much better than that in most correctional facilities. ‘‘You see it on the women’s faces, on the staff’s faces.’’

Still, when they’re at work, the inmates look like chain gangs without the chains, especially when out working in Malibu, where the average annual household income is $238,000. ‘‘The pay is ridiculous,’’ La’Sonya Edwards, 35, told me during a break from clearing a fire road. ‘‘There are some days we are worn down to the core,’’ she said. ‘‘And this isn’t that different from slave conditions. We need to get paid more for what we do.’’ Edwards makes about $500 a year in camp, plus whatever she earns while on the fire line, which might add up to a few hundred dollars in a month; the pay for a full-time civilian firefighter starts at about $40,000. In 1999, in a study funded by the Open Society Institute, five prominent economists argued for basic worker rights, including minimum wages, for inmates. Those standards have not been widely embraced, however. David Fathi, the director of the A.C.L.U. National Prison Project, who opposes all forms of prison labor, told me, ‘‘I think one important question to ask is, if these people are safe to be out and about and carrying axes and chain saws, maybe they didn’t need to be in prison in the first place.’’

C.D.C.R. says that the firefighter program is intended to serve as rehabilitation for the inmates. Yet they’re being trained to work in a field they will probably have trouble finding a job in when they get out: Los Angeles County Fire won’t hire felons and C.D.C.R. doesn’t offer any formal help to inmates who want firefighting jobs when they’re released.

This institutional disinterest makes more sense when inmate firefighters, who are on-call continuously, are considered as a state resource. The Conservation Camp Program saves California taxpayers approximately $100 million a year, according to C.D.C.R. Several states, including Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming and Georgia employ prisoners to fight fires, but none of them rely as heavily on its inmate population as California does. In the fall of 2014, as the state’s courts were taking up the issue of overcrowded prisons, the office of California’s attorney general argued against shrinking the number of inmates. Doing so, it claimed, ‘‘would severely impact fire camp participation, a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.’’ In 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown told a local CBS affiliate, ‘‘It’s very important when we can quantify that manpower, utilize it.’’

 Sandra Rojas of Malibu Camp. Credit Peter Bohler for The New York Times

 Marquet Jones, a chain-saw operator with Rainbow Camp.
Credit Peter Bohler for The New York Times

After five years, that drought is over, thanks to a much-needed rainy season earlier this year that produced the rare ‘‘super bloom’’ — vast, thick patches of orange, magenta and purple blossoms among the lime-green grasses. And yet experts still worry about this year in particular: The last time a drought ended, in 2010, the following fire season was even more extreme than the previous one. Rain caused more grass to grow in places it ordinarily wouldn’t, and when summer temperatures regularly top 100 degrees, that grass dries out and becomes kindling. In addition, an estimated 102 million trees in California have been killed by the bark beetle since 2010; the insect, which is the size of a rice grain, has been attacking pines, oaks and cedars, leaving behind dry wood husks and a heightened risk of large, severe wildfires. The 2010 fire season was bad; this season could be catastrophic. A total of more than 5,000 fires have burned 460,000 acres already. Faced with the prospect of a state in flames, California continues to depend on its inmate firefighters as a tenuous and all-but-invisible line of defense.

‘‘I lost count,’’ Marquet Jones, a firefighter arrested for first-degree burglary, told me with a shake of her head when I asked her how many fires she had been on over the previous year. ‘‘I don’t know how many fires there were last season, but all through last season.’’ The fire season typically runs from mid-May through November.

She recalled her first fire last year, going into Napa Valley as residents were evacuating. The town was burned over; cars were blackened. She wondered what she had got herself into. Despite her fear and strained nerves, she cut the containment line for 10 hours, almost until dawn. The heavy labor and the danger create a bond among the crew members. ‘‘I can say, coming from the streets, when you’re with your fire crew, that’s your family,’’ Edwards said. Of the 30 or so women I met, most were serving prison terms because of drug- or alcohol-related crimes, nonviolent convictions that the state classifies as low-level. All had been drawn to the forestry camps by the relative freedom and the chance to make more money than they could doing other prison jobs. But many said the real education they were getting had to do with making and maintaining relationships. ‘‘It helps you to work as a sister crew,’’ Marquet said. ‘‘You learn how to work with them, you know — ’cause, really all you have is each other when you’re on a fire.’’

Some inmates say they would work the fireline for free — for the experience, the training, the gratification of doing something useful. ‘‘It feels good,’’ Marquet said, ‘‘when you see kids with signs saying, ‘Thank you for saving my house, thank you for saving my dog.’ It feels good that you saved somebody’s home, you know? Some people, they look down on us because we’re inmates.’’

 Inmates preparing to cross from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation side of Rainbow Camp to the Cal Fire side. Credit Peter Bohler for The New York Times

Marquet, who is 27, already had two strikes against her when she was arrested. ‘‘I was just under the influence on meth and just felt like doing something. When you’re under that drug, you really just go with the flow. You feel like you’re invincible. Can’t no one stop you — you’re just the king or the queen of the world. I got under the influence and started walking down the street, saw a house with the window open and decided to go in. Through the window.’’ Now, her young boys — Bernard and Unique, both under 10 — live with her older sister. They haven’t been able to visit, but Marquet goes to evening prayer meetings in one of the common spaces at Rainbow. ‘‘I go Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday,’’ she said. ‘‘And I’m starting to go Friday, too. But it’s not really church. It’s ‘Moms in Prayer.’ We pray for our kids.’’

There are three all-female camps: the one at Rainbow, between San Diego and Los Angeles, also known as Conservation Camp No. 2; the one at Malibu, or Conservation Camp No. 13; and one at Puerta la Cruz, just east of Temecula, called Conservation Camp No. 14. Their grounds could pass for spiritual retreats. They are places of calm as much as training grounds; one inmate incarcerated in Malibu, for example, leads yoga and meditation sessions. Vegetable gardens are tended by inmates after work hours; there are the remnants of a boxing camp that complement the weight-lifting facility. Malibu is kissed with salt air and shade; Rainbow and Port are hiking paradises. All the inmates eat civilian food cooked by other inmates: rib-eye steak and lobster and sometimes all-you-can-eat shrimp. But the benefits of greater freedom and superior food also come with a physical cost. ‘‘Your feet are hot and tired, and they have a pulse of their own,’’ Marquet said. ‘‘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. It’s just — you have to be aware of everything.’’ Otherwise, she added, ‘‘you’re not going to survive.’’

 Part of an inmate-led yoga class at Malibu Camp. Credit Peter Bohler for The New York Times

Shawna Lynn Jones could take apart her chain saw and put it back together effortlessly. She could fix the machine when it kicked back, sharpen the chain when it dulled, clean the clutch cover. The calluses on her hands came from working the saw — it was an extension of her body. You don’t get to be second saw without knowing your machine intimately and taking your job seriously. The night of the Mulholland fire, Jones was frustrated, according to Jessica Ornelas. It was taking a long time for the civilian crews to get the hoses up the ravine. So she ran down the rocky hillside and brought them up herself.

Jones didn’t grow up with dreams of being a firefighter. She wanted to be a police officer. The first photo her mom, Diana Baez, showed me was of a cocky young girl of around 5 or 6 dressed up for career day. Jones is wearing navy blue head-to-toe and aviator shades. She has a death grip on a plastic baton and holds a leash tethered to the neck of a stuffed Goofy doll. ‘‘She always wanted to be a K-9 handler, and here she was dressed like one,’’ Baez said. We were sitting in a dark, wood-paneled bar — the Trap, a dusty oasis on the fringes of Lancaster, a town already on the fringes of Southern California in the high desert of the Antelope Valley. Before Jones was incarcerated, this was her home. Her mom managed the bar; much of her extended family was in a hard-rock band called Seconds to Centuries (SIIC) that played the back room.

 Raven Vasquez, left, a chain-saw operator from Malibu Camp, and Megan Clark, her ‘‘puller,’’ the person who pulls brush out of the way, work the Detwiler fire in Mariposa County in July. Credit Peter Bohler for The New York Times

Jones was smart, but as a teenager she couldn’t sit still in class. Eventually she dropped out of high school to work at a mortuary owned by a boyfriend’s family. The job ended when the relationship did. She had a string of boyfriends, most of them bad, and in May 2014, she was caught sitting in a car next to one of them and a large quantity of crystal methamphetamine. He had a lengthy record and didn’t want to be locked up for life. He told Jones he would bail her out if she took responsibility for the drugs. Jones was convicted of possession with attempt to distribute methamphetamine and of marijuana possession. The boyfriend kept his promise and paid the $30,000 bail, and Jones was sentenced to three years’ probation.

She was trapped in Lancaster. ‘‘No one can get out of here, it’s like we’re all stuck,’’ Rosa Garcia, Jones’s friend, said. Jones helped her mom run the Trap’s karaoke nights (screaming expletives of denial whenever someone sang ‘‘Like a Virgin’’), and she made some extra money by drawing on patrons’ flat-billed snapback baseball caps. She sold merchandise at her friends’ shows; hustled pool; bummed cigarettes; wrote poetry; smoked weed; and skateboarded, sometimes all night. In some pictures from SIIC shows, her leggings are ripped and her eyeliner is winged to perfection, and she’s standing victoriously over a riotous crowd. ‘‘I could always count on Shawna being right there, right in front of me, center stage, every single time,’’ Jae Paige Dion, the lead singer of SIIC, said. ‘‘She had no problem getting in the mosh pits and knocking down all the guys.’’ Jones was fearless. Her Facebook photos show her sticking her tongue out aggressively, flashing a middle finger at a friend’s cellphone camera; there are shots of her belly red and raw from being slapped.

 Rainbow Crew No. 4 maintaining the line on a small fire near Hemet. Credit Peter Bohler for The New York Times

Within a year of the methamphetamine arrest, Jones was back in trouble. She had violated parole at least three times — stealing puppy food, stealing groceries, selling marijuana, missing court dates — before a warrant was issued for her arrest. Jones decided to turn herself in. On June 2, 2015, she wrote on her Facebook page: ‘‘I can only handle so much bad stuff at one time. and I have reached my quota for the year so it can stop now. I want some good stuff to happen soon.’’ The Trap hosted a party. Rosa Garcia got the dollar taco guy to bring his truck to the parking lot. ‘‘We basically ordered one million tacos so that she would remember what real food tastes like,’’ Garcia said. Dion made her a personalized T-shirt with her nickname, ‘‘Baby Hooker,’’ scrawled on it, which everyone signed, and by the next day she was ready. Jones hugged her mom, who was crying, and skated off on her longboard toward the Lancaster courthouse to turn herself in. Jones admitted to the court that she failed to comply with her probation conditions, and she was sentenced to three years. She heard about the forestry program during one of the 238 days she spent in the county jail: The women all spoke of it as a prison Shangri-La — lobster, shrimp, ocean breezes. Six months after leaving the county jail, Jones was transferred to Malibu.

By November 2015, Jones was calling her mom weekly to tell her about the training, about the exhaustion after sandbagging a hillside to prevent flooding and about the optional weekend hikes that she always went on through the canyons of Malibu. She had found something in this sort of work, something she liked. It reminded her of a not-too-distant past. In high school, she camped out with friends on Shaver Lake in the Sierra Nevada mountains, plunged into cold lakes from rocky cliffs and boogie-boarded at the beach. She etched her initials with her boyfriend’s, ‘‘C.C. + S.J.,’’ on the side of a rusted beach picnic table. Her enthusiasm was so great it convinced her mother that Jones’s luck was changing. Baez was already planning her daughter’s welcome-home party.

 An inmate firefighter walks through scorched earth near Hemet. Credit Peter Bohler for The New York Times

On the morning of the Mulholland fire, Feb. 25, an unknown number flashed on Diana Baez’s cellphone around 10 a.m. It flashed again and again and again. Baez kept declining the call until it seemed like something she shouldn’t ignore. ‘‘There’s been an accident,’’ a man told her when she answered. Baez, immediately hysterical, asked, ‘‘Where is my daughter?’’ He paused and said, ‘‘I can’t tell you because she’s an inmate.’’ An hour later, when the Lancaster sheriff’s office called with numbers and instructions, Baez scrawled as much information as she could on her bedroom mirror using eyeliner. The sheriff told her that Jones was not admitted under her birth name, because of her incarcerated status. He told Baez that when she got to the U.C.L.A. hospital, she should ask for ‘‘Hawaii X.’’ She arrived to find her daughter lying unconscious on a gurney.

‘‘The first thing I did when I opened that curtain and I saw her — I grabbed her — right there, I grabbed her, and I said, ‘You promised me,’ ’’ Baez told me. ‘‘She just called me two days before, and she said, ‘Momma, I’m coming home in six weeks,’ so I freaking told her, ‘You promised me.’ ’’ Baez hardly recognized her daughter. Her face was swollen; her eyes were taped shut so that they wouldn’t dry out; her head had been shaved because the doctors were trying to drain a blood clot. Baez crawled onto the gurney next to her daughter, but she remained unresponsive.

The two police officers standing guard at the door to Jones’s room tried to explain what happened. Captains and representatives from C.D.C.R. all tried to explain. But Baez could only cry and hold her daughter’s hand. She never left Jones. (A nurse had to force her to eat a snack of orange juice and graham crackers.) Later, she found out from the intake administrator what had happened on the ravine in Malibu.

The earth above Jones began giving way. At first it was just pebbles. Then, the first chain saw shouted, ‘‘Rock.’’ But Jones couldn’t hear over the noise of her machine. The large stone fell suddenly, 100 feet and, in an instant, struck her head. She was knocked out on her feet. A fire captain strapped her into a stretcher, and a helicopter, there to drop fire retardant, descended to retrieve the limp body.

 Firefighters from Crew 13-4 of Camp Malibu on a lunch break at Nicholas Canyon Beach after completing a training exercise on Sept. 30, 2016. Credit Peter Bohler for The New York Times

There are three ways to get to Malibu 13 — from the Pacific Coast Highway, from the circuitous back roads northeast of Malibu or by way of C.D.C.R. transport. When new trainees arrive in a white bus, they see no fences. They see off-duty inmates wearing orange jumpsuits half on, white T-shirts on top and fire-rated boots laced loosely. They see open-dorm barracks where they will sleep with their crew, in a line, as if they could roll out of bed and fight fire within minutes of an alarm, which they will do, sometimes multiple nights in a row. The crews are always at work, even when they’re not. They see visitors because C.D.C.R. is proud of the program. And when they look at the communal board on the L.A. County Fire side of the camp, they see a dedicated plaque and several articles about Jones’s death. Some people wrote notes to Jones, now faded behind plexiglass. The Malibu community raised $4,000 for the ‘‘Shawna Lynn Jones Fund.’’ On the C.D.C.R. side of camp there is another memorial — five tree stumps and a rain stick with a carved message: ‘‘Like the wind, felt but not seen, my sweet Shawna may you R.I.P.’’

At a graduation last year of inmate firefighters at the California Institution for Women, near Chino, where all female inmate firefighters are trained, the mood was celebratory, almost exultant. One speaker brought up Jones and asked, to great applause, that her life and her death not go in vain. He said, ‘‘She gave her life for this program, and L.A. County made sure she did not leave without full dress.’’

When I visited Rainbow, I asked a Cal Fire captain named Danny Ramirez why the state wouldn’t increase the incentive to join the program by paying even a little bit more. He didn’t have a ready answer. Which brought up another puzzling aspect of the program: Why doesn’t the state get more out of its investment in training these women by hiring them when they’re released? Or at the very least, by creating a pathway to employment? Ramirez said the idea ‘‘to keep tags on the girls’’ had come up before. ‘‘Some of these girls leave very interested in what they got exposed to and say, ‘Oh I never knew this exists, how do I keep on doing this?’ And it’s hard when they get out there because they do have a lot of the same walls that they were facing before. But a program to keep them guided and keep them on that path and keep them focused on something instead of getting back into their old ways or old friends would be awesome.’’

Jones’s body was driven from the coroner’s department to Eternal Valley Memorial Park and Mortuary, located between Lancaster and Los Angeles. A fire company crew was on every overpass, standing on their trucks, saluting in full uniform as Jones’s body was driven underneath. Outside her funeral, rows of sheriffs and deputies stood at attention, right hands at their brows. Two fire trucks were parked at the entrance with their ladders raised, crossed in tribute to her. Shawna Lynn Jones lived as an inmate and died an honored firefighter. Baez received a customary American flag, folded into a tight triangle. Someone told her, she says, that in Shawna’s four months as a firefighter, she made about $1,000.

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