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Books

Breathing Fire

9780374721923 fc
Digital, MCD × FSG, 2021
Releases 07/27/21

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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  • “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

  • "We see and hear and breathe with the women Jaime Lowe profiles as they fight forest fires while also doing time. Her deep reporting and immersive storytelling animates every page of this intimate and powerful book, which is also a snapshot of unnerving environmental change."

    EMILY BAZELON, author of Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration