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Breathing Fire

9780374721923 fc
Digital, MCD × FSG, 2021

Shawna was overcome by the claustrophobia, the heat, the smoke, the fire, all just down the canyon and up the ravine. She was feeling the adrenaline, but also the terror of doing something for the first time. She knew how to run with a backpack; they had trained her physically. But that’s not training for flames. That’s not live fire.


California’s fire season gets hotter, longer, and more extreme every year — fire season is now year-round. Of the thousands of firefighters who battle California’s blazes every year, roughly 30 percent of the on-the-ground wildland crews are inmates earning a dollar an hour. Approximately 200 of those firefighters are women serving on all-female crews.


In Breathing Fire, Jaime Lowe expands on her revelatory work for The New York Times Magazine. She has spent years getting to know dozens of women who have participated in the fire camp program and spoken to captains, family and friends, correctional officers, and camp commanders. The result is a rare, illuminating look at how the fire camps actually operate — a story that encompasses California’s underlying catastrophes of climate change, economic disparity, and historical injustice, but also draws on deeply personal histories, relationships, desires, frustrations, and the emotional and physical intensity of firefighting.


Lowe’s reporting is a groundbreaking investigation of the prison system, and an intimate portrayal of the women of California’s correctional camps who put their lives on the line, while imprisoned, to save a state in peril.

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  • "Riveting from the first page, Jaime Lowe’s Breathing Fire is an unsentimental and vividly human portrait of a group of women in an inmate firefighting program that every Californian relies on—a program that the state presents as transformative and redemptive even as these women risk their lives for dollars a day and emerge into abandonment. Lowe’s writing is kinetic, her focus is resolutely intimate even as her frame remains far-reaching, and her reporting is essential. This book is a lasting entry in the pantheon of California nonfiction, that literature of desperation and promise and emergency."

    —JIA TOLENTINO, author of Trick Mirror

  • "A book as humane, generous and brave as its heroines, Breathing Fire is the journalism we need now, an urgent story from our carceral front lines given to us by a writer brilliantly alert to vulnerability and strength."

    JEFF SHARLET, New York Times bestselling author of The Family

  • "Breathing Fire is a powerful examination of the lives of the Malibu 13, whose labor, like that of the hundreds of incarcerated women who live (and sometimes die) fighting wildland fires, keeps the residents of the State of California safe each year. But this book is so much more. It is the story of friendship, and of prisons, jails, and foster homes, and of love and family life and labor in the wake of mass incarceration. Lowe’s vivid and sensitive account walks us through a history of confinement in California through the arrest, imprisonment, release and collective mourning of a generation of women caught in the gears of the American criminal justice system."

    REUBEN JONATHAN MILLER, author of Halfway Home: Race, Punishment and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration


  • “In recent years, women inmates have joined the army of prison labor that California relies upon to fight its wildfires, whether defending the Sequoias or celebrity homes on the Malibu Coast. It is dangerous, relentless work that ultimately depends upon the arduous personal transformations that create unity and fighting spirit within each fire crew. Against the background of recent megafires, Lowe chronicles the transcendent moments of triumph and tragedy that stir ambitions of a new life, but then recounts the systemic cruelty that undermines every hope of translating their new skills and hard-won self-confidence into civilian careers. Lionesses betrayed.”

    MIKE DAVIS, author of City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear