Message From The Center: Breathing Fire

Welcome to the second year of L.A. Omnibus, a forum for writers, thinkers, artists, and activists to share ideas, pose questions and explore solutions. Deriving inspiration from the Latin meaning of omnibus, “for all,” these conversations explore how our city is shifting, settling, and re-making itself. L.A. is not only about where we live, but how we live, how we fit together in a dynamic California landscape that is often at odds with its human inhabitants.

As I write this, on an early October morning in L.A., it is cool and dry, the sky a faultless blue. But California is burning. Today, the wind is picking up, red flag warnings are in effect and there are reports of possible “proactive” power shutoffs throughout the state. On Cal Fire’s interactive map, there are more than fifteen active “fires of interest,” and over 50% have been burning for more than two months. Millions of acres are scorched, the loss of habitat, livelihood and life is disastrous, and yet… The smoke will eventually thin out, the evacuation orders will be lifted, the crews will move on, and the sky will return to that devastating blue. In a matter of days, or weeks or months it will start all over again, in another community, in another forest, in another canyon – we shift and re-settle and re-build, but we are at odds with what we are making. The tallest living tree in the world, standing unbowed for almost 3,000 years in the middle of the Sequoia National Forest is wrapped in a kind of flame-retardant aluminum foil, guarded by front-line firefighters against the surrounding blaze. How will this end?

The women and men fighting California’s fires undergo unimaginable hardship. They must fight against the instinct that tells them to run from fire, and they instead, run towards. Since World War II, California has relied heavily on inmate fire crews, who can make up about 30% of the force.  Like “regular” firefighters, they work twenty-four-hour shifts, often sleeping in the scrub that they clear, covered by dirt and ash and the all-pervasive smoke. Unlike “regular” firefighters, they are paid $1 an hour.

This summer, on a hot, dry day in the beginning of August, I heard Jaime Lowe on NPR, talking about her book, Breathing Fire: Female Inmates on the Front Lines of California’s Wildfires.

I bought the book and read it nonstop; fascinated, moved, surprised by what I didn’t know. I read about women who run towards fire, women running towards redemption, towards a shot at a second chance; running towards a different life. I reached out to Jaime, to ask if she would be a part of this program, to be in conversation with other women who have literally pulled themselves from the fire and are working every day in our community to help others get a shot.

Many thanks to Jaime, Michelle, Elizabeth, and Wendy for being willing to talk about their lives, their work, their perspective. They have been through it, and they stand for possibility and solutions. They remind me of the hundreds of Sequoia, standing together in solidarity across thousands of years, amidst fire and drought and wind and us. They too, have been through it. If we listen, they can show us the way to the other side.

—Meryl Friedman,
Director of Education & Special Initiatives
UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance