Shawna Lynn Jones, who died Friday after being struck by a falling boulder in Malibu, is the first woman inmate in state history to lose her life while battling a wildfire, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Jones, 22, had joined the state’s Conservation Camp program in August and was working fire lines near Mulholland Highway early Thursday when she was struck in the head by a large rock that fell 100 feet, authorities said.
She was helicoptered to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in critical condition, and her family removed her from life support Friday morning. Her organs were harvested for donation, “in keeping with her family's wishes,” authorities said.
“Her death is a tragic reminder of the danger that inmate firefighters face when they volunteer to confront fires to save homes and lives,” state corrections Secretary Scott Kernan said in a prepared statement. “On behalf of all of us in the department, I send my deepest condolences to her family.”
Jones, who was from the Lancaster-Palmdale area, was serving a three-year prison sentence for repeatedly violating probation for a 2014 drug offense, according to Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department jail records. She was scheduled to be released April 10.
Although the state uses thousands of inmates to battle wildfires each year, Jones is just the third conservation camp inmate to die since the program began in 1943.
Female inmates were incorporated into the program in 1983, according to the CDCR. Of the roughly 4,000 inmates housed in 44 conservation camps across the state, only a couple of hundred are women.
Typically, inmate firefighters are armed with such tools as shovels and pickaxes, and focus on fire containment lines in often rugged terrain. Inmates operate in crews of about 14 and under the direction of a fire captain.
“They are, for all practical purposes, professional firefighters,” said Bill Sessa, a corrections department spokesman. “They’re trained to do the work that they do.”
When not fighting wildfires, inmates work on fire-prevention projects. During the winter of 2014, women at the Malibu conservation camp where Jones was stationed helped to fell and remove diseased trees that would act as fuel for wildfires.
Inmates who work in fire camps are carefully screened and evaluated to ensure they have the right temperament and attitude. Anyone with violent tendencies or attitude problems is weeded out, Sessa said.
The Mulholland fire, where Jones was injured, had broken out shortly before 3 a.m. on Mulholland Highway about two miles north of Pacific Coast Highway, according to Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Randall Wright. The fire scorched 10 acres before it was halted early Thursday morning. No structures were damaged, although a voluntary evacuation had been put into effect temporarily.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation. In addition to the inmate fire crews, the blaze was battled by Los Angeles County and Ventura County firefighters.
The Sheriff’s Department, as is standard procedure, will investigate Jones’ death, officials said.
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