Chapter 10 - 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 10

ON JULY 2, 1994, lightning sparked a small blaze on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. It smoldered for three days, within sight of the Colorado River and I-70, before anyone was dispatched to fight it.

By July 6, the South Canyon Fire covered about 125 acres on a steep west-facing slope below Hell’s Gate Ridge. (It—the fire, not the ridge—was named, mistakenly, after a canyon on the other side of the river, but is better known as Storm King.)

Sixteen jumpers were brought in, along with a helitack crew, including Rich Tyler, and twenty hotshots from Prineville, Oregon. A total of forty-nine firefighters eventually joined forces.

After they landed, the firefighters cleared two helispots on the ridge above the fire. They divided into groups and started digging two fire lines, one along the ridge and a smaller one heading down the slope of the west drainage to flank the fire. The helispots were designated as safety zones, as was the bottom of the west drainage, a deep gulch choked with dead and down trees.

It was an ugly fire from the start, on a steep hillside in dense piñon pine and scrubby Gambel oak baked by drought. The brush grew taller and thicker as they worked downhill.

Some of the crew reported later—and said at the time—that the whole situation gave them a bad feeling. Digging line downhill, in bad terrain, during the hottest part of the day, in the hottest part of the year.

Any one of these alone could be fine; together, in hindsight, they’re a checklist of red flags. The firefighters might also have been sensing, somewhere below conscious thought, the faint odor of terpenes in the air as the hillside vegetation superheated.

Don Mackey, a jumper from Missoula who was JIC and directing the effort, said more than once, “There’s nothing on this hill worth getting killed over.” Still they kept working. That was just the culture at the time: you did your job and kept concerns to yourself unless they were head-slappingly obvious.

At 4 P.M. a cold front moved in. A “red flag” weather warning had been issued earlier, but it never reached the people on the ground. Strong winds followed the interstate up the river gorge and then turned north up the west drainage below the firefighters.

A small ridge blocked their view of the growing fire, but there was little sense of urgency at first. It was only when the full flame front came into view that they realized how bad the situation was.

As boaters floated under blue skies down the Colorado River and residents of Glenwood Springs videotaped the smoke rising far above, firefighters on the slopes below Storm King started running uphill for their lives.

They found themselves trying to outrace a crown fire. Parts of the hillside had already been burned through down low. Now flames were racing through the tops of the tall shrubs without touching the ground.

The firefighters divided into two groups. One bunch of smokejumpers, under Mackey’s direction, headed straight up what became known as Lunchspot Ridge at the southern end of the fire line.

They expected Mackey to join them and bring up the end of the line. Instead, he turned around and raced back down the trail heading for the other group, including more jumpers and the Prineville Hotshots, as they were retreating back up to the ridge along the line they had built that morning, moving parallel to and above the fire. Mackey wanted to “clear the line” to make sure everyone made it out safely.

The trail grew steeper as it approached the ridge. People stumbled, abandoned tools, started passing each other. The wall of flames covered a quarter mile in two minutes at close to 20 mph, fast enough to catch birds in midair.

The flames soared nearly 200 feet above the ridgetop when they reached the crest. An NCSB jumper named Eric Hipke reached the top about five seconds before the flame front. He grabbed the back of his neck hoping for some tiny bit of protection. A blast of superheated air lifted him off his feet and then knocked him down like a fist.

His screams were probably the only thing that kept his airways from being seared closed.

With badly burned hands, he managed to scramble across into the east drainage on the other side of the ridge.

No one behind him survived.

Out of twenty-two shelter deployments on the fire there were twelve casualties, including Mackey, nine hotshots, and two McCall jumpers, Roger Roth and Jim Thrash.

Rich Tyler and another helitack crew member named Robert Browning Jr. made it farther away starting from the top of the ridge at a helicopter landing spot, but were trapped by a deep gully at the head of the west drainage. Their bodies weren’t recovered for two days.

The whole thing took seven minutes from start to finish.

The survivors stumbled down the east canyon, the side away from the fire, trying to raise their friends on the radio. They arrived at the highway and within half an hour the fire followed them, and that drainage was burned out too.

Storm King hit the wildland firefighting world like a bomb. The three jumpers were the first to die from fire since Mann Gulch, forty-five years before. (Three others had been killed in jump operations, and nine others on fire missions—seven plane crashes, one helicopter crash, one drowning.)

The circumstances were disturbingly similar: steep canyons, uphill escape routes, strong winds that caused unexpected but predictable fire behavior.

Ironically, just a year before, Norman Maclean’s classic Young Men and Fire had made Mann Gulch the firefighting equivalent of a household name.

Storm King was also the first time more than one female wildland firefighter was killed. Women made up six of the forty-nine crew members but four of the fourteen casualties. Wildland firefighting is a relatively small world, and losing people you know is part of the job. Sometimes you just don’t come home. Everyone handles it in their own way. For me, I try to honor them and all the others who have fallen by doing everything I can do to educate others, improve our gear, and work to get it into more firefighters’ hands.

As any JIC does on difficult missions, I have debated with myself whether to dig in and request more resources or pull back and minimize the risk to the crew. It can be a hard call. Bad choices are almost always clear in hindsight.

The crews on Storm King were in a precarious situation. Digging fire line downhill is an aggressive approach, and as a result it’s a trade-off. The work goes faster, but your clearest escape route, the fire line itself, runs uphill.

The main cause of the disaster was clearly the extreme weather event. If the crews on the ground had had any warning, they would have pulled out long before the blowup happened.

The official fire investigation turned into a predictable clusterfuck of politics and finger-pointing. Two of the investigators refused to sign the final report.

Storm King did lead to some improvements in safety and communications, at least. Getting weather forecasts to firefighters in the field was made a top priority, and every jumper was issued a radio. Firefighters were trained to deploy shelters on the run, not just standing still, and research into better fire shelters began in earnest.

Crews also felt more comfortable questioning or even refusing orders they felt were too risky. This used to be a sure way to get yourself labeled chickenshit. Now more and more firefighters were willing to put the brakes on. In the decade after the tragedy, fatalities for Forest Service firefighters fell by over 40 percent.

Storm King was a wake-up call. It made people think hard about what it’s worth risking to fight a fire that doesn’t directly threaten any lives. Those of us with structural firefighting experience were already familiar with that mind-set. If there aren’t any lives in danger it’s not worth putting your ass on the line.

BACK ON THAT GLOWING red ridgeline in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, with the fire cutting off my escape route uphill, it was starting to look like my ass might be suddenly on the line.

I grabbed my radio. “All rotors on 242, I need you on my location ASAP.”

We had two helicopters doing bucket operations on the fire, dumping water on the flames with pinpoint accuracy from a few hundred feet up. Right now they were both dropping water on the ridge so the fire didn’t jump over to the leeward side.

From a distance, their precise aerial maneuvers looked like a conga line with only two dancers. As soon as one emptied its water bucket, it flew off to refill as the other made its drop. We were lucky to have a dip site (a refill spot) close by, so that part of the dance only took a few minutes.

“IC 242, your location?” came the reply from above.

I told the pilot where I was. In a few seconds, he was hovering overhead. I told him I needed a recon from his viewpoint.

“You need to get to the high point on the ridge top,” he said. That wasn’t reassuring. Helo pilots are all business, so when one gives a straight-up move-your-ass directive, you better listen.

There was only one way I was going in that direction. The rotors paved my path, keeping the ridgeline in check with multiple bucket drops.

I alternated between cursing and grim chuckles as I hustled past the flames, close enough in places to toast marshmallows. Worst-case scenario I could jump in a water bucket and get a ride out. It’s been done before.

Usually you only see this kind of downhill burn in places with extreme winds, like the Santa Anas in California. It showed how when things are aligned right you can get extreme fire behavior in a place that doesn’t usually produce it—like the Northwest.

It took a few minutes to make the safety spot, an open area with little fuel to burn. It’s funny how your mind works. Most of the way up I was thinking how I’d never hear the end of it back at the base.

WE WERE ALL BACK up on the burned-over ridge the next day. The support I had requested had finally arrived in the form of another load of jumpers.

“How’s it going, PR?” said one jumper I knew. Depending on who you asked, the nickname stood for Puerto Rican or public relations, since I do a lot of base tours and other kinds of outreach. “Having fun babysitting this shitty fire?”

“What do you think, dude?” I was happy to have the experienced help. After yesterday’s adventure on top of sleepless nights of coughing, though, I wasn’t in the best of moods.

His noticed a blackened blob of metal on the ground. “What the hell?”

We had landed with an extra chainsaw, and a sawyer had cached it for use as a backup if necessary. We do this with extra gear all the time.

Then the fire made its run.

Aluminum melts at 1221˚F. This blackened lump was proof of just how high the temperature had been right where we were standing.

A few feet away sat a load of plastic water blivets, seventy-two gallons long-lined down by rotor.

They were completely untouched.