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My name is Jamie Lowe, I'm a frequent contributor to the New York Times magazine. I am in my home state of California.
Overnight, the sprawl of more than 500 California wildfires surged in a relentless march of flames, which is once again on fire.
California has suffered a devastating week.
More of the state burning this week. Oh, no. The entire wildfire season. And it's impossible for me not to think about the story I wrote in Twenty Seventeen about women who are in prison and fighting the state's wildfires on the front lines, and specifically about a woman who died fighting a fire in Malibu. Name John Alan Jones. The incarcerated women who fight California's wildfires, written by Jamie Low Rent by Jan LaVoy. Sean Lynn Jones climbed from the back of a red truck with L.A. County fire printed on its side, 10 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 for 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 chainsaw 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 3:00 a.m. on February 25th, 2016, when Malibu 13 three, 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 4000 prisoners, fight wildfires alongside civilian firefighters throughout California, immediately went to work.
They operated in hook line 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 song is next. The Pulaski's nicknamed for their tool a type of shovel follow, the McCloud's 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 hook line 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, it's 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. Ty Cuisia 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. Or could tell that Jones was struggling with the weight of her chainsaw as they hiked up the slope. I was pushing her, she was sliding down, Ornella 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 seven, 30 a.m., a little more than a third of the fire was considered contained.
Crew 33 had done its job. The fire didn't jump the line, it didn't threaten homes or ranches or coastal properties. By 10:00 the next morning, Jones was dead. She was 22. Her three year sentence had less than two months to go. But you could use a snack right about now, how about a toasty grilled cheese sandwich? Just be warned, if you happen to achieve gooey, cheesy perfection, you may be inspired to upgrade your tiny, drab kitchen.
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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 Two, 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 Rainbo, 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 Governor 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 Lieutenant Keith Raddy, the commander who is in charge of a camp where the women train. When they work, California's inmates typically earn between eight 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 two dollars and 56 cents a day in camp and one dollar 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 uptalk the program, an inmate named Amber Sape 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 thousand dollars, the pay is ridiculous, Lassana 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 dollars 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 40000 dollars. 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 Fati, the director of the ACLU 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 chainsaws, maybe they didn't need to be in prison in the first place.
Sidecars 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 DCR 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 dollars a year, according to Krekar.
Several states, including Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming and Georgia, employ prisoners to fight fires, but none of them relies 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. 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 5000 fires have burned 460000 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 Mark 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 gotten 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, Marquart said.
You learn how to work with them, you know, because really all you have is each other when you're on a fire. Some inmates say they would work the fire line for free, for the experience, the training, the gratification of doing something useful. It feels good, Marquart 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.
Marquardt, 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 were 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 Marquart 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 Rainbo between San Diego and Los Angeles, also known as conservation camp number two, the one at Malibu or conservation camp number 13, and one at Puerto 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 were the remnants of a boxing camp that complement the weightlifting facility. Malibu is kest with salt, air and shade. Rainbow and port are hiking paradises. All the inmates eat civilian food cooked by other inmates, ribeye, 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, Marquardt said.
You feel like you can't breathe, but your 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. Sean, Alan Jones could take apart her chainsaw and put it back together effortlessly. She could fix the machine when it kicked back, sharpened 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 five or six 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 canine handler. And here she was dressed like one by a set. 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, also known as sick, that played the back room. 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 her 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 intent to distribute methamphetamine and of marijuana possession. The boyfriend kept his promise and paid the 30000 dollars 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 traps 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 sick shows, her leggings are ripped and her eyeliner is whinged to perfection, and she's standing victoriously over a riotous crowd.
I could always count on Shauna being right there, right in front of me center stage every single time. J Page Dionne, the lead singer of Sick, said she had no problem getting in the mosh pit. So knocking down all the guys. Jones was fearless. Her Facebook photos show her sticking your tongue out, aggressively, flashing a middle finger at a friend's cell phone camera. There are shots of her belly, red and raw from being slapped.
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 2nd, 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.
Want some good stuff to happen soon? 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. Dionne 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 long board 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. Shangrila 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 Shavar 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 CCE plus 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. On the morning of the Mulholland Fire, February 25th, an unknown number flashed on Diana Baez's cell phone around 10:00 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, BIA's 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 UCLA 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, Mama, 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 is 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 CDC 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 chainsaw 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. 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 Krekar 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 firefight 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 KCR 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 four thousand dollars for the Shonna Lynne Jones Fund on the creek 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 Mae, you are 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 to fire. Trucks were parked at the entrance with their ladders raised, crossed in tribute to her, Shauna 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 1000 dollars.
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