THE MULHOLLAND FIRE, FEBRUARY 25, 2016
Shawna Lynn Jones heard the siren at 3:00 a.m., but refused to get out of bed. What she heard sounded like the school bells that pulsed to announce earthquakes. She could sleep through those. Those bells were drills, those drills were drop-and-covers. And everyone in California knew, if the big one hit, there’s no way an Antelope Valley school desk would save you.
“Shawna, let’s go. We’ve got to go out with another fire,” Carla said, shaking her.
Shawna refused to get out of bed.
“Get up, Shawna.”
“Is it for reals this time?” she asked.
Carla nodded. “Yeah, get up. Come on. Bailey’s gonna be pissed.”
Shawna got up, and ran, groggy, to the buggy. Her shirt was stamped, in twelve-inch letters, “CDCR”—California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation—so that under- neath it all, under her NOMEX protective gear, she’d never be mistaken for a free world firefighter. At the buggy, Carla pointed at Shawna’s feet.
“Where are your boots?” Carla’s eyes widened. Shawna was shoeless. She had raced out in a dream state. Was she imagining the siren? Was she actually even running to the buggy? Was she in jail? Was she a firefighter? Was she back home in Lancaster? Was she at the biker bar her mom managed in Antelope Valley? Was she skateboarding? Was she jumping into Shaver Lake on a hot day? She didn’t know what the fuck was going on. She groaned and asked again, “Is this a for reals fire?”
They had to treat every alarm as real. They had to rush to the buggy every time. It was their job. It was why they got paid the prison salaries of $2.56 a day and $1 an hour when they were out on the line, fighting fire. Shawna had barely seen flames before, but she was itching to. She kept saying she wanted to fight an out-of-county—when crews would travel across county lines and assist statewide efforts, sleeping outside for up to two weeks at a time, sometimes longer.
Shawna held her black, dirt-caked boots in her hands but hadn’t yet pulled them on and laced them up. They looked just like the kind of shoes correctional officers favor: White’s Smokejumpers. They were heavy black leather with winged wooden heels. New girls always complained about the boots and the blisters that came with them.
It was dark. Red and white lights flashed.
She made the crew late; the foreman, Don Bailey, was waiting. Shawna made the crew late a lot. She often came out of the barracks sloppy, shirt untucked, shoes untied, disheveled in a way that would often warrant punishment. The crew would get harder work the next day. But Shawna and Bailey had their own rapport. He wasn’t as strict with her; everyone could tell he liked her. And anyway, it was his last day with crew 13-3. After this he’d be promoted to captain and transferred, and they’d have a new foreman. He told Shawna to hurry up.
It had been the third, fourth, maybe fifth alarm of their shift. Around 10:00 p.m., when inmates had to be on their bunks for final count, the crew had assumed it just wasn’t their night to catch a fire. They toasted pizza pockets, got ready for bed, but stayed dressed in their oranges, just in case they caught a call. They went to bed in the open concrete-floored barracks. Bunk after bunk after bunk. They slept in the same order they walked as a crew. First, the sawyer, the woman in charge of handling the chain saw and cutting brush. Then, her bucker, the person who cleaned up whatever she slashed down. A second sawyer, and her bucker—that was Carla and Shawna. Then, the rest of the crew—the women in charge of tools, the girls who scraped the earth with McLeods and cut line with Pulaskis. And last in line, the dragspoon, the person who looked out for safety issues.
They lay down, thinking the calls had stopped. With only an eighth of their twenty-four-hour shift remaining, it was a good gamble. Some went to sleep hard; something deep. Others floated on the edge of consciousness, knowing another alarm might sound. Thing about fire camp, you were always tired. Always needing to catch up on sleep. And when you were on call, sleep was half a notion. Crew 13-3 had to be ready to get to the buggy in two minutes or less. So, they tucked into their cots, boots unlaced next to the cubbies. All day and into the evening, they laced their boots, raced to the fire buggy, and pulled on their turnouts, only to turn around after being told the fire call was canceled. Sometimes Bailey would pull the alarm just to test their readiness. They’d never caught an out-of-county with Bailey. Many of the fourteen women in the crew hadn’t seen fire at all.
* * *
“Come on, Shawna, get on the buggy. I think we caught one.”
Carla was not used to being responsible for other people, but Shawna was her bucker, which meant they were a team. If Carla had to cut brush on a cliff, it was Shawna who held her by the belt, dangling Carla’s body closer to the dried-out grasses that blanketed the wild mountains of Southern California. For Carla, it had started in fourth or fifth grade with the feeling of powerlessness, the feeling that she couldn’t trust the adults, or the kids, around her. She got picked on. Pushed around, bullied. She felt her size, small. It was easy to mistake small for weakness. Once she got to middle school, kids would wage all-out war on the asphalt. They’d put gum in Carla’s hair. They’d pull her hair, scratch her face, punch her in the gut, the neck, the cheek, whatever was exposed. She’d fight back, straddle whoever was coming at her, one-two-one, fists clenched, leaving nail marks in her palms, not letting up until someone pulled her off or the school cops came to break it up. Sometimes she ran, sometimes she got caught.
When she was caught, police would drive her to the San Fernando courthouse where her mom was a clerk for a judge. Growing up, Carla had seen all the criminals lined up in cuffs and judges donning their robes. She knew some judges by name. When people in the courthouse saw her, they asked, “Carla, what are you doing here?”
She went through those metal detectors as a kid, on Take Your Daughter to Work days. Her mom never thought she’d have to teach her daughter to try to avoid the lock-up side of the courthouse. It just seemed obvious. Don’t end up like them. You are better than that. I am better than that. The more Carla got in trouble, the harsher her mom punished her. You won’t go out. You won’t eat. You won’t live with me anymore. Go to your grandmother’s. You’re an embarrassment, she’d tell Carla.
By high school, Carla had learned that the best defense was a good offense. She went to three different schools, got kicked out of each for fighting. She got into fights about dumb things, gossip or rumors. If someone started shit or lied about her or demeaned her, she would not back down. When one girl told Carla she couldn’t wear the same Nikes, Carla thought, That’s bullshit, I’ll wear whatever shoes I want. And that was a fight. The fistfights continued, augmented by the hair pulling, spitting, scratching, bruising, bleeding. She didn’t know how to walk away and didn’t want to. She knew it was dumb shit, pointless shit, but it felt important. It felt necessary. She had to stand up for herself because no one else would.
Girls were getting jumped, girls were pledging gangs, and Carla’s attitude remained the same: I am not one to be fucked with. Conflict was every day.
When she thought about it now, her crime seemed so dumb, but the whole system seemed dumb and rigged. It started as a fight. Money was owed, threats relayed through rumor, things Carla didn’t talk about, even at Malibu. The confrontation that landed her in prison had quickly escalated from words to violence. A window was broken and the other girl was left beaten in front of her apartment. Carla had bruises and scrapes of her own. A week later, police officers arrived at Carla’s door with a warrant and a report that had been filed, detailing the assault and much more. The report said there had been a burglary, a knife, things that Carla knew did not happen. Why would I rob someone from the projects? I’d rob someone where there was actually something of value.
Carla thought it was all settled on the street, that this girl wouldn’t go to the police. Carla was wrong. That fight felt like a long time ago. And in many ways, it was.
Now, she was in the middle of Malibu, piling into a dirt-caked fire buggy, in the middle of the dry, brush-tangled mountains, dragging Shawna along.
Shawna groaned and asked again, “Is this a for reals fire?”
Shawna didn’t think she’d see a fire. She had arrived at camp in November and hadn’t caught a call. Her release date was April 10, 2016—just forty-five days away. Since it was February, and California’s fire season was technically over, it seemed unlikely she’d be on a fire. But she wanted that experience; she’d trained for it. In the few months she’d been at camp, Shawna had worked her way from the back of the line to bucking. If you’re a bucker, you have to be saw-certified so you’re ready to take over if your saw gets tired.
Shawna turned to Carla.
“Car, I’m scared. An actual fire.”
Carla told her to calm down and breathe. Most people called her Baby Carla, because she was only nineteen when she started serving her time. But this was her third fire season and second camp. First, she’d been at County, then Chowchilla in the Central Valley for processing, then the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Chino, then Rainbow, north of San Diego, then back to CIW, and then finally Conservation Camp #13 in Malibu. At Rainbow, the foremen were harder on the girls. They played favorites, bought Starbucks for the ones they liked best. At Malibu, Carla felt pressured by the running hikes in rocky terrain. But she liked the exacting work, cutting line and maintaining fire roads. Being on a fire crew here was just as hard as it was at Rainbow, but sometimes Bailey let them get away with shit. They could race to the fire buggy, orange shirts untucked, holding their boots, and lace them up on the way to a fire. It just depended on his mood.
She told Shawna everything would be fine, as long as she could breathe and stay calm. It was hard to stay calm. Outside the buggy, flashing lights flickered through the darkness, and inside the fire buggy, as it climbed up the curving mountain road, girls were getting nauseated and nervous. Malibu fire roads, built by generations of inmate crews, are serpentine. As the buggy negotiated the narrow, sharp switchbacks that hugged the steep inclines and dropped into valleys, it was hard not to look over the edge and imagine plunging.
Selena, the first saw and the woman who led the crew, was quiet and used to the roads. She didn’t barf and she didn’t hold her stomach and she didn’t complain and she wasn’t afraid of live fire. She was nonchalant about everything—the fires, prison, jail, juvy, the gang she used to be in, her love of animals. She spoke of it all with the same even keel. She was young and seasoned, not yet twenty-one. Sometimes Selena told jokes. She had been on so many fires, out-of-counties that required full fourteen-day assignments, that this one just a few miles north of camp seemed like a routine assignment. Tame compared to the wildland blazes she’d been on. She sat in front of Carla and Shawna on the buggy.
Carla stared through the fire buggy’s windows as they approached.
“Oh shit, there’s flames. We’re fighting a fire today,” she said.
“We’re gonna get off the buggy now. Don’t panic. You’re going to feel like you can’t breathe. Let your body naturally just breathe,” Carla said.
“I remember my first fire, there was so much smoke. You’re just like freaking out and you start thinking, Oh shit, I’m going to die. Or, These flames are so big.” But you’re fine, Carla told her. “You’re going to be okay. You know, just put your shroud on”—the draped face and neck covering for extreme thermal protection—“and just try to breathe. You know, just try to breathe like that. And if you can’t breathe or you can’t see—” Before Carla could finish, Bailey ordered everyone off the truck. They had loaded in so that they could exit the buggy in order: Selena first, Lilli second, Carla third, and Shawna fourth.
“I don’t know. I’m, like, feeling it.” Shawna seemed overcome by the claustrophobia, the heat, the smoke, the fire, all just down the canyon and up the ravine. She was feeling the rush, but also the terror of doing something for the first time. She knew how to run with a backpack and she knew she could do the burpees; they had trained her physically. But that’s not training for flames. That’s not live fire. They never trained with live fire. Not like the free world crews.
Bailey briefed them. There would be planes above, dropping retardant; there would be helicopters dropping thousands of gallons of water to stave off the advancing flames. Other crews would join them, but they—inmate crew 13-3 of Malibu—were the first to arrive on scene. He pointed northeast and said, “We’re going to hike down that ravine, then up the hill, we’re going to cut line around the fire so it can’t advance. We’re going to do what we’ve been training to do.” Inmate crews are usually on the ground, executing grunt work, the first line of defense cutting circles to try to contain flames and stop the forward progress of a fire. They are the hand crews. To contain the fire, they establish a line, usually a few feet wide, by cutting through trees and shrubs and removing anything that could burn. Fuel. The sawyers, like Selena and Carla, take chain saws to growth; the buckers, like Lilli and Shawna, throw the cut growth down the steep hillsides, sometimes into sheer-drop canyons. Then, the inmate firefighters with smaller tools follow, grinding out the roots until the line is established. What’s left is a swath of bare earth.
* * *
Selena stood in front of the flames, ready to hike in. She knew how to run. She was fast. She grew up in MacArthur Park. The thirty-five-acre park was the closest she got to nature before Malibu. As a kid, she knew which parts of the park to walk through and which parts to avoid. MacArthur Park, halfway between Koreatown and downtown L.A. and just north of south Los Angeles, was an area controlled to varying degrees by MS-13, 18th Street gang, the Wanderers, and Crazy Riders. Selena was in CRS, Crazy Riders—they protected her from rival gangs. They called her La Niña, because she was so young when she joined, just fourteen. Each gang fought for a corner of the park to control. Selena was not bothered by violence or drugs. Those, she could navigate. She worried about the cops and the foster care system, in that order. She thought she could outrun both.
At age thirteen, Selena was separated from her mom and brother and funneled into the system. Her mom was addicted to crack, and child services had been called on more than one occasion. Selena toggled between foster care, group homes, and juvy. At the time, California Department of Social Services paid foster parents $963 a month for expenses, but that was only if they could keep her in-house for the full month. Selena ran away from the first house she was placed in. A couple of months later, a social worker took her to a second house. Selena saw she’d have her own room, her own bathroom. She saw that it was a nice setup. But when she went to the bathroom, all she could see were the bars on the windows. She told her potential foster mom and social worker that she’d be right back and snuck out the back door, hopped the fence, and took a bus to a friend’s house. “I never really had a stable place to live,” Selena said. She didn’t seem bothered. It just was. She ran from every foster care setup—family homes, group homes, short-term homes—about half a dozen in five years, until the last one. That one was more like a house for friends, a place run by slightly older women who had kids Selena’s age. She was nearly eighteen and they’d all smoke weed together on comfy sofas and she thought it was chill.
* * *
Selena, first saw, got out of the buggy first. Thirty-pound pack strapped to her back, twenty-pound chain saw carried in front. This brush fire, off Mulholland Highway, in a barren and circuitous section of the road, was about two miles uphill from the Pacific Coast Highway. The only structures dotting the immediate landscape were three enormous AT&T satellite dishes that connect Hawaii to the mainland. When crew 13-3 assembled outside its buggy, the women knew the terrain. They had hiked up and down the trails and cleared the fire roads nearby. This time, the crew would have to establish its own path, away from the maintained roads. The fire wasn’t predicted to be a particularly big one; dispatchers thought it would be a ten- to twenty-acre blaze, but the terrain was challenging.
Acreage doesn’t matter when you’re tasked with hiking into a wall of flames in an attempt to control them. One lick of fire can singe skin; one inhalation can choke a life; one acre can turn into ten or twenty or a hundred or a hundred thousand. When the women of crew 13-3 unloaded, they saw a ten-foot-tall wall of orange-white-red flames curling up toward the fingers of chaparral and beyond. Braided hot ribbons of fire were mutating into plumes of black smoke. Smoke that blacked out the already dark night.
* * *
Selena was meant to hike out first. She didn’t spook easily. But these flames were growing. Even when she was arrested at age eighteen, she had calculated a clear path of escape and was confident she could outrun well-positioned cops dispatched to arrest her. She was confident because she had always been athletic. Growing up, Selena’s mom insisted that she sign up for every after-school program available, including cross-country. She went to a magnet school in Culver City for grades six through eight, and at age eleven, Selena trained for and ran the Los Angeles Marathon. Running was calming; it was a chance to think. She parlayed her hobby into a useful skill; instead of running races, she ran from cops. She heard a voice yell over a bullhorn in front of her grandmother’s apartment, “Selena, don’t run, we’ve got units in the back.” A couple of days before, Selena had held a small knife to a stranger’s side, and took his fixie bike. When reporting the crime, the victim assessed the value of his bike to be $950. In California, any theft over $950—the exact value of the bike reported—meant the theft was an automatic felony. Selena didn’t think much of taking the bike, but the guy she lifted it from was associated with a rival gang. He knew her brother. He could ID her, and did.
The LAPD got a tip informing them that Selena was selling drugs—she allegedly had a package—and that she was the female involved in the bike theft. When Selena heard, “Don’t run, we’ve got units in the back,” she thought they were trying to trick her. She ran to the back of the apartment and outside. “When I got to the back of the apartment complex, there were like six cops already trying to go in the back. And I kinda did this dodging move, it was like a movie,” Selena said. “And then I ended up running down the alley. I was running. I looked back and I seen this fat, like, two-hundred-pound cop running after me. And I’m like, I got this, I got this. I almost ended up out the alley, but my dog wasn’t there and I just stopped.” Selena’s puppy, Papi, a Chihuahua who was normally right at her heals, was nowhere. The cops had Papi, so they had her. Selena voluntarily turned herself in with the idea that Papi would be taken care of. She was cuffed and arrested. The cops gave her the name of the shelter where they would take Papi.
Because the robbery involved a weapon and the gang unit was already aware of Selena, she faced five years max for stealing the bike and ten more for gang affiliation. They never found drugs, nor was she charged with any crime related to distribution or use. Her first plea offer was twelve years at 80 percent, meaning at minimum she’d serve nine years and six months. She said no, “I’d rather take it to the box and fight it in trial.” Her public defender came back with another plea of two years at 80 percent.
This time, she pled out.
It was her first felony as an adult.
Every day, from county jail in Lynwood, Selena called a friend and asked her to pick up Papi. The shelter refused to release the dog unless Selena came to the shelter in person and signed the paperwork. But, since the dog came from an LAPD arrest, the people who worked at the shelter knew Selena was already in Lynwood, likely on her way to Chowchilla, and that she’d never be able to sign for Papi.
* * *
At this point, Selena had cycled through County, Chowchilla, and CIW, and had been at Malibu for a full fire season. Selena had been on more fires than she could count, and she was two weeks away from her release date. She’d been dispatched for a month, sometimes longer, to national parks she didn’t even know existed. Parks with trees like giants and rock formations that looked like delusions. This fire felt different. Usually, the crew was mop-up, stomping out and pounding remaining embers that might flare up. They would hunch low to the ground, carrying thirty pounds of food, water, and tools, and sift through charred earth, searching for a glow of orange, for heat. On this fire, Selena saw flames taller than the trucks and trees. She saw fire eating through the Malibu mountain, and she knew what they were supposed to do—they were supposed to climb toward that wall.
As he had anticipated, Bailey had to send them down a steep ravine in order to enter the canyon area. There were no established paths, so the women followed Selena, as they were trained to, in tight single-file formation. It was dark, and the terrain was uneven and jagged. The air was congested with blackened particles. The crew went down, then up, then down again, and up again, cutting, cutting, cutting along the way. Granite rocks embedded in the earth and small trees with stubborn stumps made forward progress challenging. They carved a line that would keep flames at bay. For most of these women, firefighting was their first introduction to hiking.
As the flames spread, helicopters dropped cherry red retardant. Some of the crew were overwhelmed by the thumping and shouting and crackling. The noise was deafening. Aircraft hovered. They could hear the fire snapping trees and chewing through plants and roots and grasses, growing bigger and louder the more fuel it consumed. And shouting: orders, warnings, conditions being relayed. In the best of circumstances, a controlled chaos. After all, wildland firefighting is concerned with one thing: controlling the uncontrollable.
When Selena spotted an ember catch just yards away, she called it back to the dragspoon, Maria, who relayed it to Bailey. The crew scrambled and RTO’d—Reverse Tool Order—changing direction and hiking away from the flames threatening their intended path. Up, down, curving around the ravine. A spot fire was put out by an engine crew who had arrived with hoses. Once the spot fire was out, crew 13-3 hiked down the ravine again. Then RTO’d out again, as another fire jumped the containment line. After the second RTO, Bailey called a bathroom break and Carla knew the question that was coming next.
“Did you pack paper, Car?” Shawna asked.
“Of course.” Carla always had toilet paper in a Ziploc baggie stashed in her helmet; Shawna never remembered her toilet paper. Car would share, but she’d only share with Shawna, because Shawna was her bucker and because it was Shawna. The other girls on crew could fend for themselves. Crew 13-3 didn’t always get along, but everyone liked Shawna. Shawna was a bridge.
Even on the ride over, when everyone realized they were heading to real flames, and tucking in their oranges and pulling on their turn-outs and getting nervous, Shawna kept it light. When they had gotten on the bus, it stank. Carla was cranky from being woken up; they were all in bitchy moods from pointless sleep deprivation and now their bus smelled toxic. The crew started shouting over one another.
“Put the fucking windows open.”
“What the fuck is that smell?”
Shawna’s seatmate, Nichelle, said, “Whoever did that is nasty.”
Shawna moved away from Nichelle to the edge of her seat, until her butt was just inches from hitting the floor.
Shawna clucked. “It was you.”
Nichelle shot back: “It was probably yo ass, shit.”
And most of the people on the bus agreed with Nichelle, that the smell was coming from Shawna. Shawna paused long, acutely aware of comic timing.
“Nichelle,” she said, making sure the whole crew could hear, “I felt the seat vibrate.”
Nichelle went berserk. “It wasn’t me, I swear, it wasn’t me.”
Shawna defused the tension. The farts were easier to focus on than fire.
Now, after two RTOs and the bathroom break, the fart incident was long since forgotten. They’d already had to piss and shit in the woods. Some had their periods and, if they were lucky, had tampons; others on the rag tried to figure out how to navigate prison-issue pads. It still seemed like this would be a quick fire. Because the crew arrived early and the fire was so close to camp, it meant they had more time to contain it by cutting line around the perimeter. Now, crew 13-3 was just waiting for the engine crew to put out that spot fire.
Copyright © 2021 by Jaime Lowe
Copyright © 2021 by Jeffery L. Ward