Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America's Most Select Airborne Firefighters - Jason A. Ramos (2015)
THE RIDGELINE ABOVE ME in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest was glowing red. A hundred yards away, tree-high flames soared skyward with a sound like telephone poles snapping in a windstorm.
“Jumper F, Ramos, do you copy?”
The fire was blowing up, as we thought it might. Three jumpers were stationed above me on the narrow ridgeline. It was maybe fifty yards across at its widest, scattered with wind-twisted trees, with steep drop-offs to either side in some sections.
Two had already radioed in that they were heading up the ridge to the safety zone. But I couldn’t get a reply from the one closest to me.
I knew he was probably double-timing uphill and couldn’t hear me over the noise of the surging fire and aircraft overhead. Too busy to pull out his radio.
Nevertheless, as JIC part of my job was making sure all personnel were accounted for.
I called him three or four more times.
AS A FIREFIGHTER, UNDERSTANDING what fire does—and more important, being able to predict what it’s going to do—is a matter of life and death.
Fire can burn uphill, downhill, and sideways. It can jump across canyons, outrun horses, and hide underground for months. It can flow like water in any direction and create its own weather, from thunderheads five miles high to flaming tornadoes that snap trees like celery.
People have been studying fire since the first caveman burned his fingers trying to cook a mammoth steak. We’ve had plenty of time to watch it, fight it, follow it, and examine its charred path. Now researchers dissect flames in labs using wind tunnels and high-speed cameras.
So what have we learned?
Let’s start with the basics. Remember seventh-grade science: Fire is a spontaneous chemical reaction that releases energy as light and heat. When it’s plant material burning, that energy came from the sun and was absorbed by a leaf. It was converted by photosynthesis into lignin and cellulose (among other things), the two most common organic molecules on earth.
You’ve heard of the “fire triangle”: fuel, heat, and oxygen, the three things fire needs to burn. In this case lignin and cellulose are the fuel, regardless of whether the plant is alive or dead.
Air is 21 percent oxygen, so there’s plenty of that.
Then all you need is some heat. Any kind of spark will do: lightning, volcanoes, a person’s cigarette. Heat drives flammable gases out of the fuel, which combine with the oxygen in the air and start to burn.
This process creates more heat, which forces out more flammable gases, which combust. Pretty soon you have a nice little flame going, plus a flying mix of burned particles and gases called smoke.
To stop the cycle, just remove any of the corners of the triangle. Contain it with a fire line so it uses up all its fuel and dies of starvation. Smother it with dirt to cut off its oxygen.
Water is good because it smothers and cools at the same time. The fire retardant or “slurry” that air tankers drop has additives like ammonium phosphate to make the water extra “sticky,” fertilizers to kick-start regrowth, and red dye to show where it landed. Hopefully not on a firefighter’s head, since a gallon weighs over eight pounds and a plane can dump thousands at a time.
That’s what fire is. How about what it does?
There are three main things that affect how a wildfire burns: fuels, terrain, and the weather. We can only control one of those. Fuels can be anything from dry pine needles on the forest floor to three-hundred-foot redwoods. Light fuels like grass, leaves, and brush burn fast and hot, which is why you start a campfire with the smallest kindling.
Living plants that have lots of flammable resins or oils in their leaves, like sagebrush and Gambel oak, make excellent light fuels. When you have a dry landscape covered by these, like the chaparral of Southern California, look out.
Heavy fuels—trees, large shrubs, fallen logs, stumps, piles of logging debris—don’t ignite as easily. But once they do, they’re much harder to put out.
The next most important measurement is moisture content. The drier a fuel is, the better it burns. And smaller fuels dry out faster, since they have a higher surface-area-to-volume (SAV) ratio.
Put those together and you get the four fuel size classes, differentiated by how long their moisture content takes to equalize with the surrounding air. The fuel classes range from “one-hour fuels” a quarter inch in diameter or less, like grasses, to “thousand-hour fuels”—big fuels three to eight inches in diameter and buried deep in the duff of the forest floor, like dead logs covered in years of pine needles and leaves.
Under the right conditions, living green plants can ignite too. I’ve seen piñon pines go up like they were soaked in gasoline, lodgepoles shoot off in sequence along a ridgeline like Roman candles on the Fourth of July.
After baking in the sun all day, a hillside of Gambel oak or juniper can become saturated with invisible flammable gases called terpenes, just waiting for a spark to explode, a phenomenon called superheating.
More things to consider: How much fuel is available (the fuel load), and how is it arranged? Are flammable materials spread out evenly or clumped together? Is there more on the ground or up in the canopy?
Don’t forget underground: smoldering tree roots, buried logs, ash pits, and coals can lurk out of sight from one year to the next, even under snow. Mop-ups often involve “potato patching,” endless shallow digging with pulaskis for buried heat sources. Firefighters have to feel for heat with their bare hands.
Ladder fuels carry fire from the ground up into the canopy, where it’s an order of magnitude harder to fight. Canopy fires sometime take off in a completely different direction from the ground fire that lit them.
Subalpine fir is a bitch in this regard. The same features that make fir trees popular as Christmas trees—densely needled branches that reach almost to the ground—also make them perfect ladders for flames.
Makes you wonder about people’s sanity when they used to decorate trees with lit candles around the holidays, doesn’t it?
I WAS DOING MY best to stay levelheaded as I called the jumper on the radio.
Jumpers don’t need to be micromanaged. He knew what he was doing.
All I could do was take a breath and chill out.
It was mid-July 2013, an early fire for the Okanogan. This was turning out to be a big lightning year for the Northwest. Before the snow started falling, over a quarter of a million strikes would be recorded, double the annual record and four times the average.
Sometimes you get a load of guys you’ve worked with for years, and sometimes you get a load you’ve never worked with before. They’re all highly trained, but it can be challenging as the JIC if you aren’t familiar with each jumper’s strong points and hangups.
This load was half and half. And it was shaping up to be a hard mission. We were on our own on the ground for the first few days, even though I had requested more resources and jumpers.
On top of everything, I had such a bad cough I felt like I was going to break a rib. At one point I coughed so hard my nose bled. (Later I found out whooping cough had recently made a run through the Methow Valley.)
More crew and supplies were due to come in at any time by helicopter. Earlier I had sent two jumpers to the helispot to manage the incoming support.
The other four of us started working above the fire. I gave the other three their assignments—two sawyers, one lookout—then hiked a few hundred yards down the ridge. I found an open rocky area that would work as a command post: satphone reception, good visibility of the fire and jumpers, everything a JIC needs.
I spread out my pack, satellite phone, solar charger, and assorted paperwork. There was some weather inbound—things were starting to kick up already—and with that kind of intel you want to have a heads-up. Our lookout had an excellent vantage point on the ridgeline. If necessary he could handle a large amount of the information and direction on the fire, especially if I got bogged down in radio communications.
This ridge had already burned through once on this fire, but there was still plenty of fuel left up high in the trees.
Sure enough, the wind started picking up late in the afternoon. Soon it was gusting over 30 mph. The fire surged, and it was time to head to safety. But where was the other jumper?
It wasn’t more than a few seconds before his voice finally came over the radio, although it felt like longer. He had reached the safety zone.
“Roger that,” I said, relieved.
Then I felt heat pricking my face. The wind had grown so strong that it was now pushing the flames down the ridge toward me.
It was now just a few yards away.
DOWNHILL OF A FIRE is usually the best place to be. But not always.
In general, flames tend to grow and speed up as they go uphill. Compared to flat ground, a fire will spread twice as fast on a 30 percent slope and four times as fast on a 55 percent slope. A downslope of about 15 percent gives the slowest spread; anything steeper and burning fuels falling and rolling downhill start to increase the speed again.
Terrain can affect fire behavior as much as fuels. At least you know the topography isn’t going to change over the course of a fire season, a mission, or even an afternoon, which makes its effect easier to predict.
Along with the steepness of a slope, it’s also important to consider the direction the slope is facing. In the Northern Hemisphere, slopes with southern exposure get more sun. Fuels tend to be lighter and drier—that is, more flammable—than on north-facing slopes. Once a fire gets going in a north slope’s denser fuels, though, it can be more difficult to put out.
Put more than one slope together—say, in a canyon—and things get interesting fast. River gorges and other kinds of deep ravines can make fires do all kinds of strange things. They change airflow in unpredictable ways, transfer heat and flying embers from one slope to another, and create microclimates, small areas of unpredictable fire behavior.
Narrow canyons, especially dead-end box canyons, can funnel winds like a chimney. Hot air rises up and flows out of the upper end and is replaced by more air pulled in at the bottom. If there’s a fire, this cycle can fan the flames and turn the whole thing into a giant blazing wind tunnel.
Weather is the most fickle of the three main things that affect fire behavior. It’s the only one that can change completely in the time it takes to eat a hamburger.
Wildland firefighters obsess over the weather more than your average meteorologist, and for good reason. For most people, the worst consequence of missing the daily weather report is getting a little damp on the way to work or having a less-than-perfect weekend at the beach.
For a jumper, hotshot, or anyone else on a fire line, an accurate forecast can mean the difference between living and dying.
Temperature and humidity are both important too; fires burn faster the hotter it is and often “lie down” at night when it’s cooler and more humid.
But as I witnessed on the ridgetop, wind is the one feature you have to watch out for on an hourly or even minute-by-minute basis. Wind feeds fire with more oxygen and carries burning embers to light new spot fires. It preheats and dries out fuels, then pushes flames toward them.
Since sun-warmed air rises, winds generally blow upslope during the day, peaking in the midafternoon and slowing or even reversing at night.
Not always, though. As a teenager in Southern California, I had seen what the Santa Anas, bone-dry downhill winds up to 60 mph, could do to a daytime blaze. I’ve seen gusts blow down power lines and roll a giant culvert across open fields, real Wizard of Oz-type stuff.
Thunderstorms are a mixed blessing. They can spark wildfires with lightning, fan them up with wind, and put them out with rain.
As storm cells grow and mature, they often create updrafts and downdrafts of 50 mph or more that can act like bellows on a fire.
Sometimes a storm cell just collapses and dumps rain. Other times, if a fire is large enough, it can create its own weather. Anvil-topped clouds rise into the stratosphere. These can act just like normal storm cells, complete with wind and lightning and precipitation.
At ground level, if conditions are right, the wind and heat and flames can start to reinforce one another in a hellish feedback loop called a firestorm.
In a firestorm, nothing is safe: sand turns to glass, metal runs like water, wood and human beings vanish into ash. Blazing tornadoes of flames suck up smoke and debris.
“Fire devils” are actually fairly common in intense wildfires. The smallest ones are only a few feet across with winds of a few dozen miles per hour. Large ones go down in history alongside names like Dresden and Hiroshima. The bombing of Hamburg during World War II created a thousand-foot-high fire tornado with 150 mph winds that tossed people into the air like so many leaves.
Natural firestorms can be just as bad. In the summer of 1871, the Upper Midwest was baked by drought and hot weather. Cold fronts are notorious for bringing sudden shifts in weather, and on October 8 one pushed across most of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. The winds it brought fanned countless small fires into one massive firestorm called the Peshtigo Fire.
Survivors described a wall of flame a mile high and five miles wide that traveled faster than a speeding locomotive. Winds tossed train cars and houses through the air. People leaped into rivers and lakes to escape and drowned or died of hypothermia instead. Desperate parents cut their own children’s throats instead of letting the flames take them.
In the end, 1.2 million acres burned and between fifteen hundred and twenty-five hundred people died. The numbers are fuzzy because so many town records were destroyed and so many bodies were burned beyond recognition or simply vaporized. The Peshtigo Fire is still the deadliest fire in U.S. history.
So why does hardly anyone know about it today? Probably because of a more famous fire that happened on the same day. About 250 miles south, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed a good chunk of the city’s downtown and killed about three hundred people.
Fuels, terrain, and weather interact in countless ways when it comes to fire. Mountains create thunderclouds. Drought makes fuels more flammable. Steep slopes have the same effect as high winds. Damp fuels offset high temperatures. And so on.
Nothing illustrates how the complex equation can turn deadly better than the Storm King fire in the summer of 1994.