Chapter 8 - Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America's Most Select Airborne Firefighters - Jason A. Ramos

Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America's Most Select Airborne Firefighters - Jason A. Ramos (2015)

Chapter 8

THE CRASH COURSE OF rookie training is just the beginning of a jumper’s education. Even after sixteen years I’m still learning new things all the time.

Of the many skills you pick up in your first few years, there’s one that tends to surprise people: smokejumpers, as a rule, are great at sewing.

Think about it: Who’s going to make and sell highly specialized equipment for a customer base of a few hundred people? No one. So we have to make all our jumpsuits, harnesses, and gear bags ourselves, from scratch. That way everything is exactly what we need—customized, tailored, and quality controlled. The designs have been handed down through generations of jumpers, yet you can still tweak them to your heart’s content.

In my first few seasons, I learned that inspecting, repairing, and making your own gear is a big part of daily life between fire jumps. So is bull cooking (an old term borrowed from logging and mining camps for cleaning, maintenance, and chores), PT and ongoing training. But your life can depend on your gear, so you’d better make damn sure every piece is in good working order.

An experienced jumper can sew better than most clothing manufacturers, even with burly textiles like Kevlar and Nomex.

“Lofties” at NCSB spend their spare time in the Lufkin Parachute Loft, where industrial sewing machines clatter away and parachute canopies hang from the high ceiling like strange silky trees.

Everyone has his or her forte. Some people are good with machines, like chain saws, while others like giving tours of the base. Some, like me, are gearheads, always trying to figure out how to modify and improve every piece of clothing and equipment.

Some folks you don’t want anywhere near a sewing machine, especially with materials in the $70-per-square-yard territory.

The biggest project is the jumpsuit, a totally unique garment designed for one purpose: to get you to the ground in one piece. The Kevlar outer material is so resistant to abrasion and punctures you have to cut it with a rotary textile saw. Even though you take the suit off once you’re on the ground, it’s still highly fire-resistant just in case. The fabric is also used in structural firefighting and can withstand 2000˚F for four seconds.

For extra protection there are closed-cell foam pads for the knees, elbows, butt, and spine. Some jumpers like to wear motorcycle or hockey pads. The suit has an integrated rappel system and a high, padded protective collar. The overall effect is a combination of a knight’s armor and a superhero suit.

There are tons of pockets inside and out for things like cold weather gear, tents, extra food, whatever you want to bring. One of the extralarge pockets on each lower leg holds your letdown rope. Your pack-out bag usually goes in the other leg pocket, but some guys wear it under their jump suit or wherever else they prefer to stash it. The pack-out bag is a frameless pack that’s also custom-made at the base. (The weights we deal with would blow out the seams of most commercial packs.)

If you ask me, our jumpsuits are cool as hell.

Underneath, we wear government-issue fire pants and a fire shirt made of a flame-resistant para-aramid textile blend that won’t burn (like cotton does) or melt into your skin (like other synthetic fabrics) under normal conditions on the line.

More firefighters are starting to pay out of their own pockets for garments manufactured by top companies in the U.S. that use newer, high-performance, fire-resistant textiles designed to breathe and wick moisture better.

Most jumpers opt for handmade leather boots, and when you gear up to jump, plastic ankle braces are Velcroed over the top for support on landing.

In terms of head protection, we’ve come a long way since the leather football helmets worn by the first generation of jumpers. There was a while in the late ’60s when guys were wearing Bell motorcycle helmets like Evel Knievel, minus the stars and stripes.

Some jumpers still rock a classic Bell. Most wear high-end ski helmets now, though. Face guards are mandatory, and a sports mouthguard can help keep you from chomping off a chunk of tongue on a bad landing.

It’s always a good idea to rinse off your mouthguard before you pop it in, in case it accidentally fell down someone’s pants when you weren’t looking.

Some things are just not sacred around a bunch of savages.

We each carry a personal gear (PG) bag the size of a small backpack. Add Nomex flight gloves and accessories like a “Jack the Ripper” hook knife—perfect for slicing tangled shroud lines—and you’re talking anywhere from seventy-five to ninety-five pounds of equipment.

As we say, ounces make pounds, and pounds equal pain. More weight means a harder landing and a tougher pack-out. At Kernville a lead crew member used to say “dirt hurts, dude” to remind us to clean every last bit of crap out of our packs from previous missions.

A sign on the NCSB loft wall says HIGH RENT DISTRICT. The message is clear: this is one place on the base you don’t want to linger as a rookie. It’s where most of the senior jumpers hang their gear.

The loft is also where all the parachute action happens. Packing a chute takes anywhere from forty-five minutes to an hour. First every parachute is hung in the loft and checked from apex (top) to risers (bottom) for any kind of wear or damage: rips in the fabric, frayed lines, burrs around the connector links.

Then you stretch the canopy and lines out on one of the long rigging tables. After checking the steering line and doing a four line check, the apex is tied off to the deployment bag (D-bag). Then you fold the canopy, in a series of steps, to fit it inside the D-bag. The lines are stowed in a zigzag pattern and the risers secured with break tape, to hold them in place for the first few seconds you’re in the air.

The final step is “wrapping the present,” putting everything inside the back tray that keeps it protected and ready for its one-way trip.

I had to pack twenty parachutes to be certified to pack my own. Each one had to be inspected by an FAA-certified senior rigger or master rigger. I’ll never forget number 20. After the rigger looked it over, instead of placing it on the shelf, he put it on his own back.

“OK, let’s go do a practice jump,” he said. He couldn’t have shown any more clearly how much you have to trust the person who packs your canopy.

ONE AFTERNOON THREE WEEKS after we passed rookie training, the fire call—an old air-raid siren—howled across the base.

People scrambled for their gear. This morning, for the first time, my name was on the jump list. The list dictates your position on the next plane and is updated daily. Whoever is at the top is jumper in charge (JIC), and every time you come back you start over at the bottom.

This morning all five of us rookies were on the list. This was our maiden fire jump.

We had already practiced suiting up over and over until we could do it in two minutes or less. Now we ran to the racks where our jumpsuits hung on wooden pegs to do it for real.

Not every base uses these quick suit-up racks—invented by jumpers, of course—but it definitely saves time, because you don’t need someone else’s help to get your suit on, like you do at some other bases.

I stuck my arms in the sleeves, then sat down and zipped up the legs. My pockets were stocked with essential gear, and a main chute was already attached to my back. All I had to do was zip up, close the harness, and pull a packed reserve chute off a hook.

I grabbed my helmet and gloves and went to the spotter for a top-to-bottom gear check (spotter check). After a thumbs-up, I hustled outside with everyone else toward the rising rumble of the plane’s engines. We climbed on board and sat in our jump list order.

“All on board, all aboard!” yelled a spotter as the last jumper stepped in.

The pilot and copilot had already done their preflight check. The plane rolled toward the runway, the pilot throttled up, and eight minutes after the siren sounded we were airborne.

YOU COULD ALMOST HEAR the buzz of nerves and anticipation. We talked a bit over the engines and wind, leaning in towards each other to be heard. I double-checked my equipment.

The plane headed due south. In the main cabin, the noise of the engines made conversation a bit sporadic.

Both spotters sat up front with the pilots. Even though they don’t leave the plane, spotters play a critical role in the jump process. (They’re all jumpers and rotate through the same jump list.)

A spotter’s job is to coordinate with dispatch, the pilots, and the JIC—the first one out the door—to make sure everyone exits and lands safely. Spotters are an objective eye in a situation where adrenaline or testosterone can distort good judgment. Jumpers trust them with their lives, so they have to stay cool no matter what.

When we were on station, somewhere east of Bend, Oregon, the main spotter came back to the main cabin.

The fire was already “going,” meaning it had enough momentum to keep itself burning but wasn’t huge yet. It was big enough that another load of jumpers from Redmond was already on the ground.

Two sets of streamers fluttered toward the jump spot the spotter had chosen. They took about a minute to hit the ground, which meant we should too.

The plane banked left on final approach, and the first stick stood up. To the uninformed they would have made a strange sight, waddling in their bulky tan jumpsuits, covered with straps and buckles and bulging pockets. The high collars, smooth helmets, and wire face masks made them look like insects. All that was missing was a pair of antennae.

But to us they looked like what they were: jumpers ready to do their job.

When my stick was up, I made sure to keep both hands over the red handle on the reserve pack on my chest. In the air, your reserve chute can save your life. But inside a plane with an open door, it’s a loaded gun.

In 1973, a jumper named Gene Hobbs was working as a spotter for a load of NCSB jumpers on a DC-3 in Alaska. Longtime NCSB jumper Ash Court was his assistant spotter. Hobbs was reaching for a box of streamers when his emergency chute deployed by accident. In an instant the wind sucked the canopy out the open door. Seconds later it sucked Hobbs out too.

Unfortunately, he went out sideways. He smashed his head and shoulders against one side of the door frame and his legs against the other. After briefly snagging on the plane’s tail, the chute carried him to the ground, unconscious.

Nobody could jump to help him because of the damage to the plane. The impact had peeled the fuselage back six inches around the doorway and torn the door almost completely off its hinges.

As the plane circled overhead radioing for help, another jumper’s reserve chute popped open inside. His companions leaped on it before anything happened.

Rescuers found Hobbs covered with mosquitoes but alive. He had broken his neck and one leg and had no memory of what happened. He wasn’t paralyzed, but he was left with nerve damage and double vision that ended his jump career.

I protected my reserve carefully as I stepped to the doorway, went through the checklist with the spotter, and made my exit.

The world outside the plane was bright and quiet. The sounds of the engines trailed away overhead, replaced by rushing air and the whump of the parachute opening.

Then the only noise was the creak of harness straps and the rustle of the canopy overhead as I steered toward the landing zone. It was big and open, and I could see the circles of other parachutes spread out below.

Everyone landed safely. When we had regrouped, one of the veteran jumpers came over and handed out baseball hats with the NCSB logo.

Now you’re rookie smokejumpers,” he said.

THE FIRST ORDER OF business was a safety briefing. To make sure everyone is on the same page, wildland firefighters use what’s called the LCES system. It’s an acronym for Lookouts, Communications, Escape routes, and Safety zones—the four most important things you need to keep from getting burned.

Lookouts can be on the ground or in the air, depending on how remote the jumpers are. Any intelligence that lookouts gather about changing conditions or approaching hazards is conveyed to the firefighters, usually by radio. Sometimes the jump plane or another aircraft will relay communications between dispatch and crews on the ground.

In case things get too hot, you always want to have at least two escape routes to a safety zone. The fire line itself often works as an escape route, but having only one isn’t enough. Conditions on the ground are constantly changing: flames shift and people move around, tire out, drift out of contact. No matter what, you always need a way to get to safety.

The LCES system is meant to defend against the unexpected. It only works if it’s in place before you engage the fire and is constantly reevaluated as conditions change.

Next we collected the cargo boxes where each had touched down under its own small parachute. After all the jumpers are out, the spotters kick the cargo out at a lower altitude, dropping it precisely where the jumpers on the ground need it to be. (It was this special talent, among others, that brought many jumpers to Southeast Asia to work for the CIA during the Vietnam War.)

To a jumper, a cargo box is a UPS package from Santa Claus. These boxes hold everything we need to be self-sufficient for at least the first forty-eight hours on the fire line: hand tools, chain saws, first-aid kits, sleeping bags, cubies of water, food.

The menu includes campfire favorites like freeze-dried meals, energy bars, trail mix, candy, beef jerky, Ramen noodles, or anything that comes in a can: chili, meat, soup, fruit. Spam is highly prized. If there’s no Spam, some jumpers can get a little pissed off.

Everyone has his or her favorites. You might be a Snickers dude or a canned peach guy. Some jumpers seem to like eating corn and oatmeal all day. Others bring extra food, like frozen gourmet meats shoved in a leg pocket.

I’ve never met anyone who really likes MREs.

When I jump on any fire, one of the first things I do is to grab my food and water and shove it in my pack. I’ve learned the hard way.

After a few times returning to the jump spot tired and hungry and finding that some professional eater has inhaled most of the food—including all the good stuff—you learn to take precautions. Food box poaching is no laughing matter.

At our base there are always two food boxes: one for you, one for your jump partner.

CANOPIES GATHERED, CARGO UNPACKED, LCES in place: it was time to fight the fire. Otherwise known as cutting line, our main job on the ground.

Just as every fire is different, so is every fire line. But there is an overall strategy. Picture a fire from above: it has a head, where the flames are spreading the fastest; usually a couple of flanks, or sides; and a heel, often back near the point of origin.

The idea is to start building line at the fire’s heel, ideally from an anchor point like a road, a river, a lake, or a cliff. This should keep the fire from flanking you, that is, sneaking around from behind to make a much bigger problem. You want to contain the flanks and pinch the fire off at the head, like fingers snuffing out a match.

That’s how it works on paper, anyway. Sometimes even in real life.

Roads, streams, and trails can make good natural fire lines, and we’re happy to use them if they’re in the right place. Usually we have to dig the line ourselves once the sawyers have done their work. From scrubby bushes to hundred-foot trees, if it’s on the fire line, it’s getting chopped by those howling orange Stihls.

A fire line is usually between one and three feet wide, depending on the situation and the crew. In national parks, crews try to make fire lines as narrow as possible to keep from scarring the landscape. Some hotshot crews are known for the almost machinelike neatness of their lines.

Jumpers are somewhere in between. You want to dig an effective line while conserving as much energy as possible, since you never know how long you’re going to be out. We’re not worried about tourists complaining about a ruined view, but we’re also often working with less manpower.

Lines are measured in chains, a term left over from seventeenth-century English surveyors. One chain is sixty-six feet, so that makes eighty chains in a mile. (And ten chains in a furlong, for your next trivia showdown.)

Line-digging speed is mostly dictated by terrain and vegetation. In moderate brush, a Type 1 crew of eighteen or twenty hotshots should be able to dig six chains of line, about four hundred feet, in an hour.

For jumpers there are extra variables like how many bodies we have and whether we have chain saws or just hand saws. It’s always heavy physical labor regardless.

Sometimes firefighters are cutting into thick mats of tangled roots, using their pulaskis to slice their way through. On a slope they might have to cut small trenches to catch embers from rolling downhill. We’re always looking for hidden heat, slicing open smoldering stumps and searching for hotspots where the duff is smoking from buried heat.

OUR FIRST REAL SMOKEJUMPER fire sucked. There was lots of dead and down, a.k.a. fallen trees, so we were constantly tripping over trunks and branches. Sweat stung our eyes and trickled down our grimy faces. The chain saws never seemed to stop roaring.

We dug straight through the night, chasing down the glow of spot fires in the darkness, like kids catching fireflies and stomping them to death.

A crew of hotshots came in the next day to help out. We were out for a few days in all. When we got back to the base, we were finally allowed to wear shirts that said SMOKEJUMPER.

We were still rookies, though. You’re not considered a “real” jumper, at least at NCSB, until you’ve stuck around at least four or five years. Even now I consider myself an “old rookie.”

Between missions we trained and worked on projects like prescribed burns, cutting hazardous trees, fencing projects, and so on. During wilderness first-aid drills, some of the group would be assigned imaginary injuries, from heatstroke to broken bones. The others would have to figure out how to treat and transport the “victims” using only the gear we’d normally bring on a jump, like packs and cargo chutes.

Hillbilly and I spent a lot of time trying to scare the crap out of each other. At night we’d hide in the darkness and leap out screaming. I’d get him coming out of the mess hall, and he’d hide under my van and grab my ankles.

Once I spent an hour and a half waiting in his closet as he watched TV in the next room. I eventually fell asleep; after years in the fire service, you learn to grab a snooze anywhere you can. When he finally came in, I woke up and threw open the closet door with a yell.

He jumped a foot in the air. “What the hell!”

“Give me a hand, dude,” I said. “My legs are asleep.” He laughed even harder as he pulled me out.

The base emptied out in the off-season as jumpers went on vacation, back to school, or off to other jobs for four to six months. Some jumpers traveled back east to work as arborists or on prescribed fires.

I returned to Riverside County for a few winters and started driving my van down to Baja California, Mexico. The Bahía de Los Angeles became my second home in the winter.

Sometimes I’d take paying clients on guided trips spearfishing or dolphin watching. Other times I’d just windsurf, kitesurf, or freedive, living off the ocean for weeks at a time.

If I got in the water early enough, I could usually catch enough food for the day by early afternoon. Between my van and the ocean, I was pretty much set.

A MISSION DURING MY second season took me three thousand miles in the opposite direction. In July 2000, we were requested to work out of a satellite base near Galena, on the Yukon River in western Alaska. As a California boy, it sure seemed to me to be the middle of nowhere.

Galena had about five hundred residents, a big deserted World War II air base, and little else. It was only accessible by air or water. In the summer the midnight sun made it seem even more desolate and creepy.

We stayed there for weeks waiting for an assignment, with nothing to do beyond daily PT and chores. We played midnight volleyball and kept an eye out for moose and grizzlies on our runs. Guys were so bored they’d have skidding contests on rusty old bikes we found lying around.

I sometimes pedaled one through the empty streets, everything gray and quiet, half expecting someone to pop out in a sundress or Don Draper suit like an episode of The Twilight Zone. I was having trouble sleeping. In fact, I was going a little batshit with all the waiting and the endless flat light.

One afternoon I was sitting out in the rain when another jumper walked out. “Are you fucking okay, dude?” he asked.

“Yeah. Why?”

“Well, because you’re sitting out here alone in the rain.” I came back down to Earth and went inside. Part of being a smokejumper is dealing with the hard parts of personal stuff when you’re in the middle of nowhere and thousands of miles away. No cell phones, no Internet back then. It put a strain on every personal connection we had.

At least we had a great cook assigned to us. I quickly made friends with him and started snagging extra late-night snacks. I was always starving at night.

I’d just smile when the others would ask where the hell I got the extra rations. That’s right, bitches, I thought. My dad taught me well: scrap when you can.

FINALLY, ON THE FOURTH of July, a call came in: a growing fire was threatening a group of cabins around a lake. Out of an eight-jumper load, three of us were from NCSB. Even though two of us were still only second-year “snookies,” that jump plane carried approximately one hundred years of firefighting experience on board.

It was a twin-prop Dornier 228-202, a faster ship than the ones we used at NCSB. It was also a small door exit. To get ready to jump, you put your left leg on a step outside the door with your right leg bent inside the plane, kneeling to fit through the small opening.

When I was in the door, I asked the spotter if they were planning on slowing down on final. I could hear my jump partner laughing his ass off over the engine. The spotter just looked at me cross-eyed and told me to put my foot on the step. It was like sticking your arm out the window of a car—a Formula One.

Compared to the Northwest, Alaskan jump sites are relatively flatter, covered with rolling tundra instead of boulders and big trees. There are hazards, sure, including plenty of water to land in and huge distances to cover if you find yourself stranded.

On that jump I had my first experience with another special Alaskan menace. At about five hundred feet I could see thick dark clouds hanging in the air. What was that haze? The second my boots touched the ground, I found out: mosquitoes. Billions of mosquitoes.

If you’ve never been to the Alaskan bush in the summer, you have no idea how bad mosquitoes can be. The state has thirty-five species, and most of them love the taste of people. They can make herds of migrating caribou change direction and send little kids to the hospital.

Between mid-June and late July, round-the-clock sunlight turns the endless acres of wetlands into ideal breeding grounds for the little bastards. (Actually the biting ones are all females, but who’s counting.)

We were there smack in the middle of prime season. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to experiencing a biblical plague. Mosquitoes were in our mouths, in our food. The tiniest piece of exposed skin became a mosquito mosh pit. (A scientist once recorded 435 bites on his arm in five minutes.) When they bit, the mosquitoes swelled up like tiny grapes, and when you wiped your arms clear, your hand would come away bloody.

According to native legend, long ago mosquitoes only used to bite animals. One day an old woman came home and found that every piece of food she had stored up for winter was gone. The mosquitoes had eaten everything: fish, caribou, even her seal oil.

In a fury she tore off her clothes and ran outside, shouting, “You mosquitoes have eaten all my food, so now you might as well eat me too!”

That’s how they found out people have nice, smooth skin that’s easy to pierce, and no tails to brush them away. Ever since then we’ve been their favorite prey.

Thanks a lot, lady.

Not surprisingly, the cabins were unoccupied. The only people there were a couple with a young girl and a dog who were living in a tent while they built a cabin of their own. Until flames came over the horizon, our job was to provide assistance to them, conduct structure protection, and keep track of the fire’s progress by radio.

The couple, both artists, had left the Lower 48 to make their dream of living off the land in Alaska come true. They appeared to have plenty of financial resources but, to me, they seemed a little out of place up here. Everyone was covered in mosquito welts, and the father’s boots were wrapped with duct tape.

One of the jumpers was born and raised in Alaska. She noticed the guy was building the cabin from instructions in a book and was using birch planks, a wood that rots quickly.

She didn’t mince words. “So you only want to have it for a couple of years?” she said. “You have a dog, that’s good. Do you have a gun? If you’re spending the winter, you should really have a gun to protect your family.”

We couldn’t force them to give up their crazy plan, so we just helped them move logs and played with the girl. The jumper talked half seriously about checking in on them by plane, maybe dropping a care package.

MOSTLY WE JUST TRIED to avoid the mosquitoes. One of the worst times was when you had to answer the call of nature.

Some parts of the body are just not meant to be bitten by insects. My first reaction was to swat. Big mistake.

Smokejumpers are nothing if not resourceful, though, and Hillbilly soon came up with a makeshift solution. If you covered your body with a trash bag, with a hole cut for your head, you could (mostly) avoid being eaten alive while you did your business. And thus was born the potty poncho.

The only real way to escape was to go out on the water on a boat. Ten feet from shore and the mosquitoes vanished. It was the strangest thing.

There were a lot of late-night pike fishing excursions.

We were thrilled to find an outhouse at the far end of the lake. We made that our incident command post and nicknamed it “Club Med.” It had a water view, all the facilities, and a million biting insects.

The stories you hear of people going crazy from Alaska’s mosquitoes sound like tall tales, but who knows—another week at Club Med and I might have flipped out myself.

We spent six days by the lake and the fire never got close to the cabins. The experience taught me a different side of being a jumper. We can be animals when necessary, but on that bug-infested pond, we were public ambassadors more than anything.

That, and there are some things no training can ever prepare you for.