Chapter 11 - 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 11


The yell came from upslope, followed by a crashing noise in the trees.

We were on a fire near Lake Chelan, a long, narrow mountain lake southwest of Winthrop. It’s one of the prettiest places in the North Cascades, surrounded by steep forested hillsides and snow-capped peaks to the west.

I always looked forward to missions here because demob (demobilization, a.k.a. heading home) usually meant a boat ride out and a good meal at the landing.

At the moment I was mopping up the lower left flank of the fire alone. The other three jumpers were uphill.

Earlier that morning they had called down that there were some big boulders up above that could start rolling.

There had already been a few warning shouts, though nothing too serious—one more day on the job.

Just in case, I picked out a big fir tree nearby, about five feet in diameter, to hide behind.

The crashing grew louder. Whatever it was, it sounded big. This should be cool, I thought.

I looked up and saw a boulder the size of a golf cart rolling downhill, flattening everything in its path.

It was heading straight for me.

THERE MAY BE OTHER jobs that are more dangerous, statistically, than wildland firefighting. But needless to say, jumping is still a world away from sitting behind a desk. You’re working in an inherently dangerous, unpredictable setting. A fire environment has multiple layers of hazards that are constantly changing and interacting.

As with most activities, one of the most dangerous parts of fighting fire is simply getting to the scene. Vehicle crashes, including plane and helicopter accidents, are the most common cause of fatalities outside of fire itself. Cardiac events like heart attacks are next.

If you’re lucky, the worst part of the plane ride is getting airsick. The Sherpa is especially bad in this respect. That plane is just a horse, with its head-piercing engine noise and the way it feels like it’s always circling just a little bit.

One flight took us through five states in a single day. The plane came from Oregon, picked us up in Washington, then we hit Idaho, the California border, Nevada, and, finally, Oregon again. At least three times we had to stop to refuel. A few jumpers were puking their guts out toward the end. The visuals and smells nearly started an all-out puke fest for the rest of us. I managed to hold down my lunch, but just barely.

We were nearing the pilots’ eight-hour flight limit (not to mention ours) when they found a fire for us somewhere in Oregon. The sun was low in the sky—we can jump up to half an hour after sunset—when we landed in a meadow.

One guy had joked on the plane how he never got airsick. By the time he landed, he was so green he just released his parachute and lay down as darkness fell. He didn’t get up until later that night.

The fire was small enough that those of us who weren’t still too sick could handle it.

We were fine with that. Picking up the slack when necessary is part of the job.

EVEN THOUGH WE USE what is probably the safest parachute system ever developed, in the end we’re still jumping out of planes.

Bad landings have left jumpers with twisted or broken ankles, shattered femurs, wrenched knees, dislocated shoulders, fractured vertebrae, and concussions. They don’t call it “rough terrain jumping” because it sounds cool.

Regardless of how much you train, some landings are going to hurt no matter what. One of my worst happened just a few minutes’ flight time from NCSB.

It was my fifth year on the job. My assignment was to monitor a fire we were watching under a let-burn directive. After landing I was to take pictures and notes on the weather and send the intel back to base.

The jump spot was a small patch of green with some rocky spots that summer jumpers call scabs. I was second in the stick.

Map of response times © by Jenn Tate

At one hundred feet I knew I wasn’t going to hit the happy zone like my jump partner had. He was already on the ground yelling encouragement: “Keep it tight, keep it tight!”

This one was going to hurt.

At least I landed into the wind, so my forward speed was as low as possible. Some jumpers joke you can land in concertina wire if the wind is in your face.

None of that here, but it was a stony minefield. Even though I had a soft touchdown, a textbook PLF was not happening.

In this kind of situation, anything you leave sticking out—like, say, an arm—can snap off like a chicken wing. All you can do is keep it tight and do your best imitation of a bowling ball.

I tucked as small as I could and rolled. There was crunching. At some point my left hand smashed against a rock. Great, I thought—there goes another finger.

“Are you OK?” my partner yelled when I didn’t hop up with my usual speed.

“I’m fucking fine, just give me a minute!”

I picked myself up slowly, waiting for the warm sensation of flowing blood. I pulled off my glove to survey the damage. What do you know: all five digits, present and accounted for. I was bruised to hell, but not even bleeding.

Even better, the whole cooked chicken I was carrying in my leg pocket was still intact. So was the roll of spicy marinated mozzarella next to it. We stuffed our faces that afternoon.

JUMPERS DON’T DWELL ON getting hurt. In this job, a high pain threshold is considered an advantage. In that way it’s like being a professional athlete, minus the million-dollar salaries and the world-class physical therapists.

For better or worse, complaining about being sore or tired is a sure way to end up ostracized.

In the late 1970s, some NCSB jumpers were working a fire in the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area in the North Cascades. It was a long mission, so they had extra supplies dropped in.

When it was over, they were looking at a nine-mile pack-out through steep country. Contrary to standard procedure, they decided to burn some of their trash, seal it in a bag, and bury it instead of carry it out.

A wilderness ranger found out and dug the trash up. He was understandably pissed. The base manager agreed to come in to talk to him, hopefully placate him a little.

It was an early-morning jump into a high basin at fifty-five hundred feet. The jump spot was windy and long shadows made it hard to judge altitude. The senior jumper hit a downdraft near the ground and smoked in from two hundred feet.

He caught a rock high on his right leg, shattering the femur into five or six pieces “like a bowl of jelly,” he said later.

They had to evacuate him by helo. Doctors put his leg back together like a puzzle, sawing an inch and a half block of bone in the middle of his femur into four quadrants, 90 degrees apart, positioning them with a titanium rod and plastic bands, and then leaving the fragments to calcify where the bones were joined together. He spent eleven weeks on his back and thirteen weeks on crutches.

While an accident like that might motivate some people to reconsider careers, this guy was spotting, ground-pounding, and rappelling the next season, and then jumping again after only a year off jump status. His right leg was now an inch and a half shorter.

A few years later, to prevent future orthopedic problems, he went to a hospital in Seattle where doctors had developed a new procedure. They removed a piece of bone from his good leg and sewed it back up, knowing the muscles would shorten themselves naturally.

Five weeks later he was jogging again, back to normal except for one thing. When he left the plane over Glacier Peak he was six feet tall, and now he was five feet ten. He made another two hundred and thirty jumps before he retired.

A water landing sounds simple, but it’s not always a pleasant experience. Once I landed near the edge of a lake near Mount Baker in Washington. With the reflection off the surface I couldn’t tell exactly how deep it was.

You know how sometimes you’re walking down the stairs and you think there’s one more step but there isn’t? My landing was like that.

My feet hit the bottom a tiny bit sooner than I expected. The shock caught me off guard and my teeth snapped shut, clipping off a piece of the side of my tongue. (Pro tip: shut your mouth before you hit the ground.)

I talked a little funny for a day or two, and I wore a mouth guard for a few years after that.

I also found some tadpoles in my leg pocket.

Jump in the Cascades long enough and chances are you’ll end up hanging in a tree at least once. I’ve done it about a dozen times.

A tree landing means a lot of extra work, so you try to avoid it if you can. And usually the smaller the tree, the better.

If a tree landing is your best (or least bad) option, you want to cap the tree well.

That means lining up the top between your legs like gun sights, pulling the brakes and, hopefully, if you had enough time to do everything right, spreading the canopy over the top of the tree like a hat.

If you end up well hung, so to speak, your canopy will make a solid rappel anchor to get to the ground.

Paying attention as you drop your letdown line could save you hours of grief, and luck helps too. A good toss will give you a clean rappel line. But if you aren’t paying attention in a wolfy tree that’s full of crap, and toss your rope, you’ll have a terrible time getting down. In that case it’s best not to throw it at all, but reroute it back to your leg pocket as you rappel down.

If you don’t cap a tree cleanly, it can be a nightmare. You might end up hung on a limb, in which case you better hug that tree like a cat and start thinking about dumping gear to lighten up.

A canopy can snag on branches and deflate. The next thing you know the jumper is bouncing down between the branches like a Plinko chip on The Price Is Right, grabbing at anything to slow down.

A bad tree landing is a sobering thing to see, like a very unfunny cartoon explosion with stuff flying everywhere. Our jumpsuits are tough but sharp branches can still punch through, or even impale you.

If you hear the sound of snapping branches, you can’t help but give a silent prayer, hold your breath, and listen for anything—cursing, usually—as proof of life.

You never leave a chute hung up even if it’s completely shredded. It’s not just littering the forest; each canopy represents close to $2,000 of taxpayers’ money.

If you can climb the tree and pull it down, great. Otherwise you’re looking at cutting off the treetop, or maybe even the whole thing.

It might have to wait until you’re finished with the fire, but eventually that canopy has to come down.

On the ground we have to deal with the usual hazards of working in the outdoors: dehydration, headaches, sunburn, poison ivy, wasp nests, snakes, and wild animals.

The list gets a lot longer when you add the risks of fire and the tools we use to fight it.

Year after year breathing smoke and ash can cause chronic respiratory issues, not to mention black snot. Chain saws cut through legs as easily as branches.

Sawyers are supposed to cut trees and shrubs flush with the ground. If they don’t, sharp little stumps called stobs are left behind, sticking out of the ground like punji sticks. God help you if you fall on one of these. I’ve heard tales of these ending up where the sun doesn’t shine. That would suck.

Wildland firefighters also must keep an eye on their pee: if it’s brown and they’ve been working especially hard, it could be a sign of rhabdomyolysis, a buildup of electrolytes and muscle proteins in the blood that can permanently damage the kidneys.

That’s one reason we have a rule of thumb of drinking a gallon of water per day during arduous duty.

One of the biggest dangers on a fire are falling snags. You never know when or where a dead tree or limb is going to fall. The big ones can be as thick as you are tall.

A normal-looking tree may be rotten or burned through just under the surface. A falling trunk covered with branch stumps might as well be studded with swords.

Snags are called widow-makers for good reason. Dead trees and branches have killed plenty of firefighters, including a jumper out of Redding in 2013. Helmets help, but they could be better. That’s why I helped a leading company design a better helmet in my off-duty time.

If we’re required to wear head protection, I want something that actually works.

Rolling stones—not the band—are surprisingly common, to nonfirefighters at least.

Intense heat causes everything to expand, loosen, and crumble, including soil and stones. Flames burn away roots that hold rocks in place. Gravity takes over and things start heading downhill.

Runaway rocks are common enough that firefighters have given them a tasteful nickname: “Bowling for Hotshots.”

ON THE LAKE CHELAN fire, the boulder heading toward me was plowing aside trees like a bouncing bulldozer. I could feel the vibration through my boots.

I’ve rolled some rocks in my time, mostly as a kid in California. Once my dad and I aimed a big one at an old VW bug someone had abandoned in a ditch. It hit the car hard enough to spin it halfway around.

This one was much bigger.

I did my best Indiana Jones impression and lunged toward the fir tree. Just as I reached it the boulder slammed into the other side in an explosion of debris. The shock felt like the rollover car accident I had in my twenties.

I opened my eyes and saw the boulder hurtling away below me, heading at a slightly different angle, blazing a clear, splintered route all the way down the hill, as far as I could see.

I yelled to one of the other jumpers to come down and be my witness. He found me standing beside the tree staring at a huge chunk of bark almost as large as me that was lying on the ground.

We both knew that if the tree hadn’t been there, he would have been picking me up in pieces.

I ended up following the nice, clean path cleared for me by the boulder down to the nearest trail, then hiking out to the rendezvous spot for a helo pickup.

I never did get that damn boat ride.

EVERY NOW AND THEN you’ll get a mission that’s just a checklist of misery.

On one such occasion, I and another NCSB jumper started out with a good landing on a small lightning fire north of the base.

Our cargo boxes, on the other hand, ended up hung in the trees.

The whole point of smokejumping is to get to the fire as quickly as possible. You can’t screw around once you hit the ground. If there were more than just us two, we could leave someone behind to retrieve the gear. But there wasn’t.

We had no choice but to leave almost all our firefighting tools, food, water, and cold weather gear dangling in the branches and head off to find the fire.

I had only one canteen of water on me, which was frozen. That and some Gatorade mix and a Snickers bar.

Then it got worse. The forests of the Pacific Northwest have the densest biomass in the country—sometimes lots of huge trees, but in this case, an incredibly dense understory.

This fire was burning somewhere in that brushy tangle. To find it we had to get on our hands and knees and squirm through tunnels of vegetation like some kind of jungle commandos.

The fire was hardly smoking at all, which meant it was a bitch to find. Over the radio, air attack snidely suggested I try and sniff it out. I’m notorious at the base for having an almost uncanny sense of smell; if I even get a drop of milk on my clothes, it will drive me nuts. I laughed at the transmission, suggesting they come down and give me a hand.

No luck here, though. After a brief but intensely frustrating search, we finally found the smoldering pig, dug some line around it, and got it confined for the night.

We made it back to the jump spot by sunset. We were parched, but it was too dark to get the cargo down now. We had to wait until sunrise.

We shared a few “Gato shots,” two capfuls of water mixed with a little Gatorade.

Not a good idea.

I didn’t know it at the time, but ingesting too much glucose and too little water can cause bloating and diarrhea. (Now I know; and I carry a better electrolyte replacement mix on every jump.) I don’t think I’ve ever been so thirsty, even in triple-digit Southern California summers.

The temperature was dropping fast, but our sleeping bags were somewhere overhead in the darkness.

We both had the same idea simultaneously: out came the fire shelters. They’re designed to keep heat out, but turns out they’re pretty good at keeping it in too.

We deployed the shelters and settled in for the night. I ended up getting a great night’s sleep—the silver lining, so to speak, to a shitty day. I’m still not sure why this isn’t standard training in case of emergency.

The next day we got everything down from the trees. Then it was time to head back to the fire and put it out.

We were down to one cubie of water—a cardboard box with a five-gallon plastic bladder inside. Normally these are for drinking, but under some circumstances—such as this—we use them to help put out a fire.

Anything to get out of this shithole faster.

We drank up, filled our water bottles, and saved the rest for the fire.

Back into the jungle tunnels we went.

Usually you carry a cubie by sticking your pulaski through the little cargo strap on top and slinging it over your shoulder.

Here, of course, that was impossible, crawling through dense thickets on our hands and knees.

Just to move on this hellacious hillside I had to put the strap around my wrist. The box kept twisting and banging into me until I was ready to cut it loose and watch it tumble away.

But we needed the water, so all I could do was thrash around and practice my French.

When we reached the fire, we were able to put it out quickly. You’d be amazed what five gallons of water and two pulaskis can do.

Even then we weren’t done yet. The local forest helo reconned us a pickup spot and estimated it was an easy hike away.

From the air, distances can look completely different from how they are on the ground. I had a superintendent back in California who was fond of saying, “Just one more chain, Snapper.” This always meant we’d be walking to China.

I could hear his voice in my head as we hiked and hiked and hiked some more.

Hours later, we finally reached the helispot and called for pickup.

JUMPERS ARE ALWAYS LOOKING for new and better gear to make their lives easier. Aside from a government-issue helmet, fire shelter, and a few other basic necessities, we have to buy everything ourselves.

The list doesn’t even include boots, a firefighting essential, although rumors are in the air that we might be getting a stipend for those.

After that night in a shelter, I did some research and discovered a camping hammock made by Hennessy Hammock. I picked one up and found it to be one of the finest inventions ever made for sleeping in the backcountry.

Since then I’ve never jumped without one in my PG bag. I’ve only had to sleep on the ground twice more: once because there were no trees, and once because I was just too damn tired to set it up.