The Female Inmates Who Fight California’s Wildfires

Photo by RINGO CHIU/AFP/Getty Images

Shawna Jones got busted with her drug-dealing boyfriend in a car with a lot of weed and crystal meth. The boyfriend convinced Shawna to take the rap for him because he already had a lengthy record. He promised to bail her out, which he did, and Shawna ended up getting three-years probation.

Unfortunately, within a year of the bust, Shawna had violated her parole at least three times—stealing dog food and groceries, selling weed and missing court dates. A warrant for her arrest was issued, so she decided to turn herself in. She was sentenced to three years.

During her prison stay, Shawna’s behavior was excellent, so she was given the opportunity to join the Malibu 13-3—a prison crew of women firefighters who get paid $1 an hour to fight fires. There are about 250 female inmate firefighters in California, who work alongside civilians, according to a recent article from the New York Times about the program and Shawna.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation selects inmates to join CalFire and local crews across the state, and Los Angeles County operates its own inmate firefighter program for inmates who are non-violent offenders.

The petite 22-year-old had no trouble carrying the 50-pounds of equipment in her backpack, which included gloves, flares, food, full water bottles, safety and medical gear and an emergency shelter.

On her team, Shawna was also the ‘‘second saw,’’ meaning she and another woman each carried the chain saws with them.

It was around 3:00 a.m. in Southern California, when Shawna and her crew responded to the Mulholland Fire—before any aerial support or local fire trucks arrived.  The fire was inland from the Pacific Coast Highway, which is full of ravines and dry brush, making it prone to landslides, flash floods and wildfires.

The women of the Malibu 13-3 fire team scrambled up a steep slope that was full of loose soil and rocks, which made digging the containment line very challenging.

As the crew moved toward the flames, tools in hand, they tried to keep a distance of 10 feet between each other and called out conditions as they saw them up ahead.

One of her crewmates, Jessica Ornelas told the NY Times that she could tell Shawna was struggling with the weight of her chain saw as they hiked up the slope.

‘‘I was pushing her, she was sliding down,’’ Ornelas said. ‘‘It was just too heavy for her.’’

But Shawna pushed on, and by 7:30 a.m., a little more than a third of the fire was contained. Malibu 13-3 had done its job. They kept the fire from advancing and threatening the homes and ranches along the coast.

But it wasn’t over yet.

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

By the next day, she was dead. Shawna had only six weeks left of her sentence, and her mother was already planning her welcome home party.

Shawna Jones was laid to rest with a full line-of-duty memorial service conducted by the Los Angeles County Fire Department. In addition to a memorial service with full honor guard, her family was presented with an award commemorating her service, presented by the Wildland Firefighter Foundation.

A fire company crew was on every overpass, standing on their trucks, saluting in full uniform as Shawna’s body was driven from the coroner’s department to the Eternal Valley Memorial Park and Mortuary, where rows of sheriffs and deputies stood at attention.

At the end of her time as a firefighter, Shawna had made only $1,000.

“Shame on our community for not compensating, with decent wages, those risking their lives to confront fires to save homes and lives,” Malibu resident Valerie Sklarevsky commented at a Malibu Planning Commission meeting, according to the Malibu Times.

Shame on our country for sending a teenager to prison for stealing dog food, groceries and selling weed.

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