Women inmates risking their lives fighting wildfire flames

Soledad Espinoza, 22, is one of California's more than 200 women firefighter inmates.

Soledad Espinoza, 22, is one of California's more than 200 women firefighter inmates.

Driving uphill Wednesday afternoon towards the smoke from the Tubbs Fire in Calistoga, Michael Anthony Adams and I spotted a firefighting crew heading into a driveway in the direction of the smoke.

They had emerged from a truck labeled as both Cal Fire and Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). As we approached them, we noticed the line was made up of all women.

Soledad Espinoza, 22, is one of California's more than 200 women firefighter inmates.

"We go through regular prison to a couple months of training, then you pass certain physical fitness tests. Then you go to school for a little while... you learn what it means to cut a fire line," Espinoza said.

Once they graduate, they are sent to the camps where training and testing increase. At that point, she said, "it really has to do with your willingness if you really want to be here, if you really want to put your body and your mind through the next level."

Captain Brent Pascua, who has worked with the Rainbow Camp crews in San Diego for three years, said they drove for 12 hours, including rest stops, Tuesday and have been hard at work all day. They are tasked with removing flammable material, such as shrubs, dry weeds and branches, and cutting protective lines of dust and other minerals around the fire to slow its progression.

Espinoza, who said they hike with 45-pound backpacks to the front of the fire carrying chainsaws, coolers and a gallon and a half of water, believes, "women are the best hand crews they have. We are able to push ourselves to limits that not necessarily the males are capable of. We have childbirth and we go through extreme pain that you would never have thought we would survive. So, I think that helps us to push ourselves fighting a fire day in, day out."

Wednesday night they will likely camp out there, where they are working, covered not with real blankets but emergency ones that accumulate condensation inside and fail to keep them warm.

Downhill, the town of about 5,000 was entirely evacuated, except for the few people who decided to stay. We crossed a checkpoint, where a police officer we had spoken with earlier asked, "Did you get anything good?" When we told him about the crews we shadowed, a man standing next to him jokingly said, "they're disposable."

The thought hadn't crossed my mind until I heard this awful joke. These men and women are risking their lives and enduring hard labor on the frontline of the fire without earning as much as a minimum wage. Last year, Malibu Camp firefighter inmate Shawna Lynn Jones died in the field.

According to a New York Times article featuring the Rainbow Camp crew, inmate firefighter hand crews "can make a maximum of $2.56 a day in camp and $1 an hour when they're fighting fires.

"What we do definitely pushes you mentally and physically to places that you would never imagine that your body is capable of. Or mentally, would you have ever thought that you would be able to do things like this?"

So I asked her, "why do you do this?"

She said, "It makes me feel like I can do something positive with what I've done wrong. And paying back to my community, society and myself and owning that I'm not just going to always be a screw-up. That there is normalcy for me."

A series of DUIs landed Espinoza in prison at 19. She will be out in a year and plans to resume her life as a sous chef. She says cooking is her thing. Also, joining Cal Fire is likely not an option since recent EMT requirements mandate a clean record. She has also tested her resiliency enough.

"This place has given me confidence that I can do anything in life," she said. "If I can do this, if I can climb a mountain with blisters on all of my toes, if I can go through some physical pain that I would have never thought I could possibly had been through... it gives me the belief that when I do get my freedom back, I can do anything. There is nothing that can stop me."

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