Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America's Most Select Airborne Firefighters - Jason A. Ramos (2015)
THE BACK WALL OF the NCSB loft is decorated with memorabilia and a few photos. One of the pictures shows a jumper stooped under a huge pack that towers above his head. He looks like some kind of medieval peasant carrying a load of goods to market.
Guess who that is?
The setting was Crater Lake National Park. Redmond is the closest jumper base, so the park is usually their territory. But just as jumpers from other bases get to see our backyard in the Cascades, I’ve been lucky enough to jump there a few times.
The deep, almost alien blue of the lake and the jagged rim of the collapsed volcanic caldera make for some world-class scenery.
The park is huge, though, much bigger than just the lake. On this two-man mission we jumped into a part called the pumice desert, a barren area covered in powdered rock and ash from the same eruption that created the lake seventy-seven hundred years ago.
I was out one morning answering the call of nature when I heard an elk bugling nearby. I couldn’t see anything—we were in the densely forested side of the park—but I had never heard one this close.
I started sneaking toward the sound through the woods. I wanted to see this thing. I kept searching quietly through the trees and bushes until finally, stepping around a trunk, I almost stumbled into a bull with a large rack off to my left. He gave an angry grunt and charged.
Let’s just say if I hadn’t done my business already I would have shit myself. There was nothing to hide behind and no time to run, so I stood my ground.
He passed within a few yards and went crashing off into the trees.
When my heartbeat returned to normal, I looked around the dense forest and realized I was a bit turned around.
Did I mention I was JIC?
As I realized I was turned around, I knew I needed to pay close attention and retrace my way back to camp. Without a radio or a compass, I had to rely on my experience and landmarks to work my way back. It took a bit, especially if you include my elk excursion and sightseeing. Once I knew I was finally getting close, I hooted a few times in case the other jumper could hear it. He was only a rookie on the fire and probably thought I was hurt or something. At one point I had even heard a plane that sounded like a jump ship and thought, Shit, my radio’s back at camp, I’m the JIC, and they are trying to contact me. Just great.
It was a good lesson in how you should never go off, even a few yards into the woods, without your radio and a compass in your pocket.
When I finally got back to camp, it turned out nobody was looking for me or worried about my extended absence.
“Did you hear me hoot a few times?” I asked the rookie.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I thought that was some hiker!”
WE FINALLY FINISHED WITH that fire and returned to the jump spot to pack up to leave.
Normally any cargo that burns goes into the campfire to lighten the pack-out. Here, however, we were within sight of a scenic viewing area. Visitors might be watching, and you can bet the rangers were. We had to carry everything out.
As I shouldered my pack I heard a few stitches pop in the shoulder straps. Luckily the hike was flat, with only scattered soft spots and holes from ground varmints to watch out for. I spent most of it struggling to stay upright.
My jump partner obligingly took a picture.
It took us about two hours to go about two miles. When we reached the truck I backed up to the tailgate, leaned back, and unclicked my strap buckles with a sigh of relief. That feeling of sudden weightlessness never gets old.
A tourist had drifted over and started peppering me with questions.
“Sir, give me a second,” I said, hands on knees, trying to catch my breath. It took a few seconds of stretching before I could straighten my spine out all the way.
When we returned to base, my jump partner tried to convince me to let him weigh our packs. I figured it would be a serious morale breaker if it only came in at 110 pounds. I told him, “No, dude, I’m okay.”
A few minutes later I heard some ruckus in the cargo area and voices saying my name. Great, I thought. My pack usually was under 110 pounds—I must be turning into a pansy.
When I entered the room, one jumper said, “Holy shit, dude, you had 154.8!”
I looked at the scale. He was right.
It was my heaviest load ever for me. My pride felt a little better. The popped stitches made sense.
Soon a new photo joined the others on the wall: a not-too-tall jumper bent under a backpack heavier than him.
AS YOU MAY HAVE assumed, there’s a certain protocol to fighting fire in national parks. Firefighters need special approval for things like retardant drops, cutting down trees, and using motorized equipment like chain saws and pumps. We’re often restricted to light hand tactics, essentially nineteenth-century firefighting technology. The technical term is MIST tactics—Minimum Impact Suppression Techniques.
The whole experience can be a bureaucratic nightmare.
On another Crater Lake mission, a local fire chief called on the radio as soon as we landed. “You guys are not here,” he said.
“Can you please repeat?” I said.
“You’re not even here. Do not dig holes, don’t disturb anything. Don’t even fart.”
I laughed to myself, but after a glance around I got the picture. We were in some kind of special research area that was pristine even by park standards.
Where we were standing had the cleanest forest floor I’ve even seen. It looked like some millionaire’s property where a caretaker used a Miele vacuum on it every few days.
A PACK-OUT ISN’T A race. Everyone travels at his or her own pace, usually alone.
You’ve been busting ass for days, working in the dirt, and sleeping on the ground. You’re lucky if you have only 110 pounds on your back.
You’re free to stop for a dip in a river or some huckleberry grazing, anything you want, as long as you make it to the pickup spot on time.
Sometimes you get lucky and find a good trail—even a game trail—that makes for an easy hike out. (“Easy” being relative, of course.)
That doesn’t happen often in the North Cascades, though. So the pack-out is often the hardest part of a mission—and sometimes it can take twice as long as you anticipated it would.
Once I was on a two-manner with another jumper from NCSB, on a small ridgeline in the Cascades. It was early summer, with plenty of snow lingering in the mid to high country.
We put the fire out without any problem. When it was time to pack out, we radioed one of the ships flying overhead for intel on the nearest road.
The helitack on board gave us some coordinates. “There’s one about a quarter mile below you,” he said. “A couple hours at most.”
I looked at the steep slopes all around us. There were deep patches of snow in every shady spot and on most north-facing slopes.
I shook my head. Two hours my ass. Yet another piece of helicopter intel that was certain to be a bit different on foot.
We shouldered our packs and headed out. “It’s gonna take us at least four hours,” I said.
Sure enough, the route that looked so short and easy from the air was anything but.
No trail, for starters. Our route took us across one particular north-facing slope that was steep and covered with snow. A man-sized cheese grater of jagged boulders waited at the bottom. If a guy tripped, he’d better get that pack off quick before he started sliding.
I tried to think Jedi thoughts and float across the surface crust without breaking through. My jump partner was heavier and was soon postholing knee deep.
“Hey, dude, think light!” I stopped to watch and laugh as he floundered. I wasn’t far behind, but I figured I could stay on top of the crust.
I started to punch through about halfway across. In some spots I went in past my knees.
Now it was his turn to laugh. I heard him yelling something from above me but I was too focused on getting across to listen.
When I stopped for a breather, he said, “Look down to your right.”
A shallow trough ran down through the snow to the rocks below like a poorly planned sled run. There were deep grooves on both sides and traces of dark wiry hair in the middle.
It was the unmistakable ass track of a sliding bear.
The grooves must be where it tried to use its claws to slow down, like a mountaineer self-arresting with an ice ax.
It looked like Smokey was having some fun, but I wonder how banged up he got at the bottom. In any case, I’m glad I wasn’t around. That would have been one pissed-off carnivore.
“Son of a bitch, don’t fall now,” I muttered.
We crossed the snowfield without incident and kept going. That two-hour hike took more than four hours.
Near the end, I ended up having to grab thick hanging vines to cross a slippery creek: Tarzan of the Pacific Northwest.
ANIMALS ARE SMART—THEY DON’T tend to stick around when there’s a fire nearby. It’s rare to see a charred carcass. We do occasionally cross paths, though.
On one Kernville helitack mission we were hunkering in for the night near a small creek. We didn’t carry tents and usually weren’t allowed to make fires, since our supt believed sleeping on the ground built character. Being a California boy, I hate being cold, but orders were orders.
After dark we heard a commotion near the creek. We grabbed a headlamp, and by its light we saw a big black bear playing in the water. He was jumping off the bank like a diving board, swimming back, and doing it again. It looked like he was having a blast.
He didn’t seem to mind we were there, but we decided the situation warranted a fire. Just in case. We piled enough pinecones to last the night and slept warm as our friend splashed in the darkness.
Later that night, the local forest lookout tower called on the radio asking us about a new start in the area we were in.
“We have a large bear in the area,” was our radio transmission reply.
IN THE DOWNTIME AFTER a fire is out, some of us go looking for dinner. Lots of jumpers are skilled hunters and fishermen; in another life they would have probably been mountain men.
Once many years ago, on a full load mission in the Okanogan, in the Pasayten Wilderness near the Canadian border, I set out into the woods with my trusty slingshot.
One of the jumpers who was on the mission saw me heading out. “Where are you going?” he said, half joking. “You city boys can’t hunt!”
Later that evening I was back at camp with enough for dinner, grouse cleaned and ready to eat. All by slingshot.
We ate like kings that night.
IN THIS PROFESSION JUMPERS have to find the humor in the midst of the days that really suck. Otherwise they won’t last long.
There’s a plant called devil’s club, a relative of Siberian ginseng that thrives in the Pacific Northwest forests.
Native cultures use it for all kinds of medicinal treatments. If you try to hike through it, however, you’ll learn why its scientific name is Oplopanax horridus. It’s covered with brittle spines that break off under your skin and are almost impossible to get out.
I got to know this evil shrub intimately on the west slope of the Cascades in Washington. It was the end of a fire mission. I and another NCSB jumper volunteered to recon a way out while the rest of our crew stayed behind to mop up.
We left early in the morning carrying just our PG bags, maybe twenty-five to thirty pounds each. It was only five or six miles to the nearest road.
As we were packing up, an NCSB rookie had told us he thought the path was impassable. We both laid into him immediately. “You’re a jumper now, rookie! What the hell do you mean, impassable?”
Within a few hours we weren’t so cocky. The broken terrain was making our compass act funny, and the vegetation was so thick we couldn’t get a GPS signal. Most of it was devil’s club.
We flailed through thickets for hours, tripping and falling, our faces and backs stinging with thorns.
At one point I got so frustrated I bit a branch. That just left me with thorns in my mouth.
We followed a river as much as possible to escape the plants. After being tormented by their barbs, I welcomed the freezing water and slippery rocks. More than once I just lay down in the water and floated a few yards, exhausted. I could only drift a little way each time from all the rocks and debris.
There was no way the jumpers back at the fire could catch up and make it out in one day. My jump partner radioed the JIC to tell him, in so many words, we’d hiked into hell and they should call for a helo pickup.
All we could do was keep thrashing. At one point I had to stop to scarf down a can of beanie weenies. As I finished my lunch, I saw a lone wood duck surfing a wake in the river, the only other living thing I had seen for hours besides a giant slug.
Wonderful, I thought. Now I’m hallucinating.
The others must have taken our advice, because impatient calls started coming over the radio hours later. They were at the pickup spot and wanted to go home—where the hell were we?
As dusk began to fall, I started looking for a hooch site to dig in for the night. Just then my partner’s voice came on the radio: “I’m at the fucking trailhead. You’re almost there dude, just keep heading downstream.”
An hour later I heard a hooting through the trees, something we do to give each other a bearing when we’re close. It was one of the other jumpers who had gotten a helo ride out. He had hiked in a little ways to help guide us out, and now he was a little disoriented.
I couldn’t help laughing. “Now you know what I did all day, dude.”
The JIC hiked in as well so we could leave this Club Med. Together the four of us reached the pickup spot as the sun was setting, almost fourteen hours after we had set out that morning.
We spent the night at a local ranger station. Whoever had slept in the bed last had used nice shampoo, because the pillow smelled great. I relaxed and enjoyed the luxurious smell of a woman’s freshly washed hair … as I drifted off to sleep, it occurred to me that I really did hope it was a woman’s pillow and not some guy with long hair who liked good-smelling shampoo.
BAD LANDINGS, ROLLING ROCKS, and shitty pack-outs are all occasional hazards. The biggest danger on a fire, of course, is fire itself.
Almost half of all recorded fatalities on wildfires in the United States have been caused by burns or burnovers, when firefighters can’t get out of the path of a moving flame front.
A burnover is a disaster regardless of whether it ends with people dying. It means someone screwed up badly or was really unlucky—often both.
Every firefighter carries a personal fire shelter as a last resort. The idea goes back at least a few centuries. In 1804, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis were trekking across North Dakota when they came across the aftermath of a fatal prairie fire. With his typical creative spelling, Clark wrote in his journal: “A boy half white was saved unhurt in the midst of the flaim … The course of his being Saved was a Green buffalow Skin was thrown over him by his mother … the Fire did not burn under the Skin leaveing the grass round the boy.”
Modern fire shelter development began in the late 1950s by the Australians. The shelters were bell-shaped, made out of aluminum foil laminated to fiberglass cloth, and looked like a teepee. The firefighter would stand inside. Later in the ’60s the U.S. began experimenting with little silver A-frame pup tents.
A shelter is supposed to reflect the heat of a fire and trap enough cool, breathable air to survive a burnover. I’ve never had an occasion to test this in person, and I pray I never do.
The hottest part of a wildfire is around two-thirds of the flame height, around 2,600 to 2,800 degrees. At ground level, the temperatures are at their coolest but can still be as high as 1,800 degrees. A person can survive 200 degrees, maybe even 300 for a short time.
Then just a few breaths of superheated air can make your throat spasm closed and your lungs start to fill with fluid. Most fire deaths are from suffocation, not burns.
The Forest Service made shelters mandatory in 1977, the year after three hotshots died and one was badly burned in a fire near Grand Junction, Colorado. The firefighters had left their shelters behind in base camp and probably would have survived if they had them.
First-generation shelters weren’t any good at withstanding direct flames or extreme temperatures. When flames touched them, the foil would quickly start to delaminate the adhevsive at around 450 degrees, and after that they were useless.
Out of 1,239 documented deployments since 1977, the Forest Service says fire shelters have saved 321 lives and prevented 390 serious injuries.
At the same time, forty-one firefighters died after fully or partly deploying their shelters. Some didn’t get inside in time; others left too early or couldn’t hold on in the flaming hurricane of a burnover.
The rest died because their shelters failed them.
There’s no excuse for a piece of safety equipment not doing what it was designed to do—every time.
In the 1990s, after decades of calls for better shelters, the Forest Service ordered the Missoula Technology and Development Center (MTDC), its main fire research center, to find a better design. The shelters had to work better but they also couldn’t be too heavy, and they couldn’t cost more than $75 each.
The government eventually settled on a design with a flattened oval shape like an overstuffed sleeping bag. The M-2002 New Generation fire shelter is made of separate layers of woven silica and fiberglass, with foil laminated to the inside and outside. It weighs over a pound more than the old one and packs larger, and also comes in a size large for tall people.
Almost all firefighters were using the new shelters by the end of the decade. They’re better than the old ones, but they’re still nowhere near good enough. The adhesive that holds the aluminum foil to the cloth starts to break down and disintegrate at around 600 degrees. (At least manufacturers have stopped using the cyanide-based adhesive.)
A shelter needs to work in every situation, from grass fires to timber crown fires. It should be able to survive a two-thousand-degree burnover, because those do happen.
Would you drive a car if the seat belt only worked at less than 40 mph?
A shelter that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to offers a false sense of security, encourages more risky behavior, and raises the overall chance of accidents. That’s why firefighters in Canada and Australia don’t even carry them. It’s also the reason I’m strongly supporting the development of a new fire shelter, which we’ll get into later.
The best way to avoid problems with a fire shelter is to never have to use it. If you’re a firefighter with no choice, the deployment process has stayed the same.
First you find the best location possible, ideally an open area free of burnable material. If you have time, cut away the closest fuels and toss aside flammable things like chain saws, gas cans, and fusees we use for starting fires.
Pull the shelter from its plastic carrying case and shake it open. (“Shake and bake,” as they say.)
Pull it over your back from feet to head like a fitted sheet. Then lie facedown on the ground. That’s where the air is coolest and most smoke-free. Bring some water and a radio inside if you can.
Hold the floor of the shelter against the ground as tightly as possible. Heat and smoke and toxic gases will come through any gap.
Then hold on for dear life. Fire winds can be strong enough to toss you in the air. The violence and heat and noise of a burnover can make even veterans panic.
Firefighters have been killed after leaving their shelters too soon. Did they think their odds were better trying to outrun the fire? Or did they just want to get the inevitable over with quickly?
Who knows. Deploying a shelter is a psychological effort as much as a physical one. If you have to do it, you know one of two things is about to happen: you’re going to live or you’re going to die.