Ditches and Pop Tarts: Life Inside a Female Prison Firefighter Camp
Illustration by Julia Kuo


This story is over 5 years old.


Ditches and Pop Tarts: Life Inside a Female Prison Firefighter Camp

Fire is gender neutral.
June 12, 2016, 1:30pm

You can, in fact, fight fire in the rain. I was told this by my captain when I first got to fire camp and I thought he was nuts. Twelve months later, almost to the day, I was standing on a mountain, fighting fire, in a thunderstorm, with the word 'PRISONER' stamped on the back of my uniform.

For two years and three months, I worked as an inmate firefighter in a unique prison camp in San Diego County. My first stint in jail was from a DUI I got in 2009. After I got out of the county jail, I didn't deal with my myriad issues, instead I tried to cram them into the tiny piece of myself that housed all my pain, self-loathing and insecurities. I spent the next year in a downward spiral of depression, using alcohol as my numbing agent. Then I got the second DUI and was sent to prison.


The day I was sentenced I was in shock, even though I knew it was coming. I was an emotional wreck when I got back to my dorm in county jail from the courthouse and was quickly enveloped by my bunkmates. One of them was Linda, an old-school, lockup regular. Linda had that "been around the block" look that a lot of women who spend a great of time locked up succumb to. She had long hair that nearly reached the back of her thighs, and a constantly tired look in her eyes. Meth use had ruined a great deal her teeth and her skin was dull. There were more lines around her eyes and the corners of her mouth than a typical woman her age, which could have been anywhere between 40 and 65. She sat me down and gave me advice that would impact the next four years of my life: "go to fire camp." I sat there with tears and snot all over my face, listening as she imparted years of firefighting know-how.

Read More: Inside the Strange and Beautiful Box Economy of Women's Prison

Linda told me you could spend your time in prison working as a legit firefighter. Then she gave me a run down of who could go. You have to be minimum security, since inmate firefighters have relative freedom, moving around on projects in the community and on fires. Violent and Serious inmates are barred, though some crimes in those categories can be cleared. For example, some DUI cases are classified as Violent, but they can be cleared to go to camp since they don't pose the same safety risk to the public as, say, attempted murder (even though they are classified the same).

I chose to go to fire camp because the idea of sitting in a cell, behind a fence, a long way from home, made me panicky. Given the chance to be outside, physically working, with no walls and learning and experiencing something I never would have had to chance to do made my decision a no-brainer. The things I gained along the way, like self-respect, camaraderie, a sense of purpose and even a six-pack came as an added bonus.

Fire camp recruits in 2015 courtesy of the California Department of Corrections

The inmate firefighter program in California has been around sine 1946 (1983 for women). There are 43 camps in CA: 40 male, 3 female. Inmates work as firefighters, traveling up and down the state fighting fires of all shapes and sizes. We can also be brought in on floods and other various rescues if needed. It's the real deal.

You have to pass multiple physical fitness tests to make it to camp, the culmination of which is a timed hike in full gear. Running a mile is one thing; hiking in fire retardant Nomex, a helmet, gloves, and full backpack is something else. I consider the timed hike the Great Separator. People made it, or went down in a blaze of heat exhausted glory. The hike was called "Stairway to Heaven."

Given the chance to be outside, physically working, with no walls and learning and experiencing something I never would have had the chance to do made my decision a no-brainer.

Once at fire camp, you're put on a crew immediately and off you go, tool in hand. Day-to-day, you go into the community and do projects such as clearing brush, cutting down dead trees, planting new trees, and lots and lots of weeding. Some days it feels like being a glorified gardener.

Read More: Burning Down the Boys' Club with One of LA's Only Female Fighters

Some days, you do get to confront fire, however small it may be. And when you do, it's a thrill: car fire on the side of the freeway, a kid lit up his backyard, etc. But no matter the size, they're all approached the same. In order for a fire to be controlled, it has to have a fire line cut around it, and that's where inmate firefighters come in. We work alongside water engines, especially if a fire is live. Crews use chainsaws and hand tools to cut a "line", which means no vegetation of any kind, basically bare dirt, usually three to six feet wide, around a fire. So when your friendly news anchor says the fire is "50 percent contained", it means it has line cut around half of it. Depending on the vegetation, cutting line can be really hard. It can take hours to cut out a one-acre fire, even with multiple crews.

Camp Pendleton fire in San Diego by Dan Tentler via Flickr

As an inmate firefighter you are paid essentially nothing and do the physical work of a lumberjack. We worked right alongside regular firefighters on the frontline, sometimes armed with nothing more than a shovel. We made $1 an hour on fires, $1.47 a day on regular projects. Apparently the $1/hour rate hasn't increased since the 1950s.

The idea of us working as slave labor was topic that was consistently tossed around. Intense bitching usually came after an excruciating project, or after working an active fire line for 24 hours. Regardless, it doesn't change the fact that every single person at fire camp made the decision to go there and could leave whenever they chose. Granted, the camps would sometimes make it difficult to leave, but I've seen women purposefully roll ankles or throw punches just to get shipped out.


We all understood that we were replaceable. And there were times we would feel completely overworked and under appreciated. What would follow would be a heart-to-heart with a crew member or friend that consisted of variations of the same conversation:

Me: "This really fucking blows. Why am I here? I'm tired, I'm sore. I could go back to general pop and sit around all day watching TV and eating Ho-Hos".

Her: "You could. But then your (mom, sister, boyfriend, etc.) wouldn't be able to visit you. And you'd get fat".

Me: "Yeah, but I could call them all day long because I would just be chilling in my chonglas instead of stomping around in these ridiculous boots with a chainsaw on my back".

Her: "True, but think of all the weight you're losing here!"

Me: "Who gives a shit about that? I don't want to do this anymore."

Her: "Think of how much more of a tough person you are because you are choosing to do this! A firefighter! You get to tell your (daughter, nephew, grandkid, etc,) that you're a firefighter!"

Me: "I don't care. I'm sick of working for nothing and being tired and getting yelled at and dealing with 80 stupid women 24/7 and eating shitty food."

Her : "Fine. Then leave."

Me, the next morning: "I think I'll stick it out."

Oddly enough, the longer you're in camp, the more reasonable that type of money seems. My crew worked for 36 days straight during the crazy fires in California last year. Thirty-six straight days of sleeping on concrete or in a bush, and being cooped up with the same people day in, day out. And yet that paycheck of $850 or so was cause for a massive celebration. Parties of rare extravagance were thrown using that haul. The bigger the paycheck, the bigger the spread. After lucrative fires, the camp's commissary would be cleaned out and all sorts of prison cooking would emerge: tamales made with Fritos and dried beans, fried rice made with mayonnaise and ramen flavoring packets and the ubiquitous cake, made by mixing powdered coffee creamer with Mountain Dew and adding whatever flavors strike your fancy. My personal favorite was peanut butter with melted Milky Way over a crushed Pop Tart crust.

Image by Peter Reid via Flickr

During my two years, my crew completely turned over about three times. There are always between 12 and 16 inmates on crew, and it is constantly changing. Like all families, love, hate, adventure, tension and exasperation abound. If you shit, shower and sweat next to the same person all day, everyday, you're bound to want to kill them at some point, just as much as you are bound to bond over all the insane shared experiences. There's constant fighting, screaming, crying, laughing and lots of hugging. The most memorable times were on fires: surviving the fire line made for the best stories.

I'm sick of working for nothing and being tired and getting yelled at and dealing with 80 stupid women 24/7 and eating shitty food.

The coldest I have ever been in my entire life was on a fire line. It was that kind of cold where, other than dying, the only thing you can do is cry. In October of 2013, a small chunk of Camp Pendleton, the marine base in Southern California, went up in flames. The part that lit up was the part filled with hills and riverbeds and thick, gnarly vegetation. We found ourselves in the bottom of one of those riverbeds in the middle of the night, after cutting line for a few hours. Usually the night hours of fires are either spent cutting line, or watching the line you just cut. You watch for any rogue sparks that feel the need to float over your head into the unburned fuel behind you, effectively jumping the line and rendering all the back-breaking work you just did futile. So you watch, hopefully smothering any wayward spark before it gets going. My crew spread out along the line in pairs spaced about 50 feet apart. And we sat and watched and nearly froze to death.

I was paired up with my sawyer, Heather, and we were both soaking wet with sweat and therefore were in the "just starting to ice over" stage of our human popsicle transformation. Heather is a big, tough chick who can wield a chainsaw like no other. She rocks a mohawk, has tattoos up to her eyeballs (literally) and hits just about 6 feet tall. And she wept like baby (Sorry Heather, but it's true). The next duo down from us would periodically go by, the first time running sprints, then jumping jacks, and then squats. Heather and I determined our only recourse was to bury ourselves in the dirt.


So we dug. Heather sniffling, me muttering. We got in our hole, sat in it for a few minutes and decided the only choice now was to fill in our hole, with us in it. So we pulled in all the dirt and spent the next few hours with only our heads sticking up out of the ground. I don't think we would have been much use had a spark actually gone by, but we were warm(er).

Then at about 3 a.m., a scene I'll never forget: one of our captains emerging from the growth in front of us, a drip torch in his hand, setting the world on fire. All you could see of him was a silhouette moving along the tree line with a trail of flames in his wake. Back-burning is a tactic sometimes used to control fires and it means that you cut a line, leaving room between you and the fire (as opposed to cutting line directly on the fire's edge). Then the unburned area between the line and the fire are set aflame, essentially giving you control of what's burning. Someone had given the go-ahead to torch parts of this riverbed and I can't say that my crew minded one bit. We cozied up as close to that fire as possible, eventually starting to thaw out.

We dozed off, woke up in the morning, hiked the hell out of there and that was that. But it was talked about for months to come. Between the crew, with other crews, I even told the story to new captains because I was so tickled by it. Years later, post-prison, Heather and I still laugh about the time we buried ourselves in the dirt and cried together.

In February of 2016, Shawna Lynn Jones, a 22-year-old female inmate firefighter died after being struck by a large rock while fighting a fire in Malibu. While working the fire line, Shawna was hit in the head after the rock fell 100 feet. Shawna is the first female inmate firefighter to die in the state. Her death is a reminder that when you're facing live flames, it doesn't matter what is stamped on the clothes of the person next to you. Inmate firefighters choose to go to camp for a variety or reasons, but all that matters is that they got there. Looking back, I'm proud of the things I achieved at camp and the lessons being there taught me. I salute all my fellow inmate firefighters, former and current. My hope is that Shawna's story will be testament about the brave and amazing work the women in orange can do.