Chapter 13 - 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 13

WE WERE EATING DINNER in the mess hall on July 10, 2001, when the news started coming in about missing firefighters just north of the base.

The NCSB mess hall can be a loud place, filled with jumpers and anybody who happens to be at a fire camp nearby—pilots, hotshots, helitack, engine crews—shooting the shit and telling (and retelling) old stories and jokes.

It was another hot and busy summer in the North Cascades. Severe drought conditions had primed the area for wildfires, with temperatures in the high 90s and relative humidity in the single digits.

The day before, the hot exhaust pipe of a DNR fire patrol truck had sparked an explosive fire in tall, dry grass about twenty miles south. In its first twenty-four hours, the Libby South Fire had grown to over one thousand acres and forced an overnight evacuation of the entire Libby Creek watershed.

Now maybe three dozen people were enjoying the company and the famously tasty chow when radios around the room started filling with ominous chatter. I closed my eyes for a second. News like this is never welcome. But if you’re in the fire service long enough, it’s guaranteed to happen at some point.

Most experienced jumpers don’t skip a beat at reports of injuries or fatalities. We’ve learned the long, hard way that you can’t do much after the fact, and that often the best thing you can do to help is to focus on the job at hand.

I finished my food; something told me we were going to get involved, and I didn’t know when the next real meal might be.

After dinner a call came over the PA: three other jumpers and I were to report to the office as soon as possible. As we walked over we could see the unmistakable sign of a blowup to the north: two massive thunderheads with a quiver of lenticular clouds like flying saucers between them. It looked like an atomic bomb had just gone off near the Canadian border. It was a sure sign of high winds aloft and extreme fire behavior down below.

“We have confirmed shelter deployments up north along the Chewuch,” the base manager said when we reached the office. The narrow, winding river canyon was about thirty miles north of Winthrop. “I need four jumpers to head up there and look for possible civilian survivors. You guys good to go?”

The radio chatter at dinner was already a bad sign. If that kind of talk makes it onto the airwaves, that means bad shit has already gone down. Now a shelter deployment, which probably meant a burnover. Nothing good.

It was a genuine request for volunteers, not an order. The immediate aftermath of a large fire is a dangerous place. But if people might still need help, there was no way we were going to say no.

We packed four chain saws and gear into a van, and a few minutes later were rolling out the gate into the long evening shadows.

The rugged walls of the Chewuch River canyon formed a steep V that rose almost three thousand feet on both sides. There was just enough room at the bottom for the meandering river, a narrow belt of trees and thick brush, and a dirt road on the west side of the canyon.

The road dead-ended at a popular trailhead at the canyon’s northern end, not far from the Canadian border. The heavily forested gorge was full of dead and down timber, a perfect bed for fire, with a thick understory of shrubs and bushes.

In 1929, the Remmel Fire burned forty thousand acres in the Chewuch River watershed. In 1994, it came close to burning again when the 4,780-acre Thunder Mountain Fire dipped into the canyon.

The Thirtymile Fire, the one we were headed out to help with, was named after a nearby peak. It had started the day before from a carelessly abandoned picnic fire in the upper canyon. The previous evening, when it was only a few acres, a full crew of hotshots was sent in on initial attack and worked on it through the night. During the night, a twenty-one-person fire crew from the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest called up for the Libby South Fire was redirected to help with the Thirtymile Fire instead.

Even when it’s this close to a base, jumpers aren’t called for every fire. Remember there are fewer than 500 of us on duty most years, and in the height of the summer fire season, jumpers are often reserved for starts in places with no road access.

THE NORTHWEST REGULARS #6, as the second crew was called, had rolled up the Chewuch canyon in two vans around 9 A.M. They joined the hotshots and two engines that were already there.

The Regulars were a Type 2 crew made up of firefighters from two different Forest Service ranger districts, Naches and Leavenworth. Many of them had multiple seasons of wildfire experience, but they had never worked together as a group. Eight were rookies, the youngest eighteen years old. Ellreese Daniels, the forty-seven-year-old IC, was the third choice for the position after fire managers couldn’t track down two others higher on the list.

At first it seemed the crews would be able to have the fire under control by the end of the day. Only a half-dozen or so acres were burning on the east side of the canyon, across the river from the road.

The Regulars split into three squads and sent a lookout up on a rocky outcrop. The canyon was so deep that radio signals could only go up, so a small lookout plane circled overhead to relay communications to dispatch. If worst came to worst, the pilot could direct the crews to safety zones.

The road, mostly one lane, was the only escape route. One way in, one way out: one of nature’s warning signs.

When the Regulars started digging line around 11 A.M., one problem followed another. Four of their pulaskis broke. They couldn’t get their two pumps to work consistently, so they couldn’t pull water from the river and douse the fire as they had planned.

A helicopter with a water bucket was delayed for hours, in part because of confusion over whether it was allowed to scoop water from a stream that held endangered fish species.

As the temperatures climbed toward 100 degrees, flames started to spread through the “dog hair” thickets of underbrush faster than the crews could control them. Flying embers lit spot fires on the east slope and the narrow strip between the river and the road. Bone-dry trees started candling, exploding into flame like briquettes soaked in lighter fluid.

The Regulars had been up most of the night traveling and their energy was ebbing. Flames were eating through their hoses and spotting across the fire line.

By midafternoon they decided the fire was beyond control. It was time to back off, regroup, stay safe. So they did, at least at first.

The lookout was ordered down, and everyone gathered on the road to rest and eat lunch. The crew watched as what was now a full-blown crown fire spread from treetop to treetop. By now the blaze covered a hundred acres. It was an awe-inspiring sight, one many of them had never seen before.

With the flames moving away from them and on the other side of the river, they felt safe enough to relax, sharpen tools, and take pictures. Some even snoozed. While they were resting, an engine drove past heading up the canyon.

After a short break, a call came from the engine crew. They were still fighting a few spot fires about a quarter mile up the canyon. Could the Regulars send some people up to help?

Maybe the presence of the engine gave a false sense of security. Maybe the Regulars’ crew bosses thought they could just keep driving up the canyon if they had to escape; apparently some of the crew didn’t even know the road dead-ended, since their maps only showed the part of the canyon where they were working.

In any case, even though the crew was tired and the fire had already been written off as a lost cause, fourteen crew members, including Daniels, headed up to help. Some drove up in one van, and the rest were dropped off by the other, which then left.

Within minutes it was clear they had made a mistake. The fire was spreading fast and was now large enough to form its own thunderhead—those clouds we had seen from Winthrop. The smoky air was almost too hot to breathe and rising winds were lighting spot fires on both sides of the road.

The engine drove back down the road to the lunch spot and safety, followed by the remaining six Regulars in the second van. The flames were so close to the road they had to shield their faces from the heat as they drove past.

Up the road, the radio came alive with warnings. Flames were visibly closing in on that narrow escape route. Daniels and the rest needed to get the hell out of there, right now.

The Regulars started back down toward the lunch spot, four on foot and ten in the van. They found a wall of tree-high flames blocking the way. The fire had spread across the bottom of the canyon and was eating its way up toward them.

They were cut off.

Everyone piled into the single van. They turned around and drove back up the road to find a safety zone.

About a mile farther up the road, the river made a wide bend around a sandbar and the canyon widened. A large rock slide spilled down the west slope almost to the road. The air attack plane on station confirmed the river bend was the most open place in the upper canyon.

Burning branches and pinecones rained on the van’s roof as the Regulars parked at the rock slide and climbed out. Tensions were high, but this place seemed green and peaceful compared to what they had left behind.

Given the situation, it was the best place they could be. They were stuck but safe, in radio contact with command and the eye-in-the-sky overhead. The main flame front was out of sight around a bend. Even if the fire came this far, it would surely pass around them.

As all firefighters have done at times, they stopped and watched the fire. Some lit cigarettes. Others took pictures of the pillar of smoke, white on top and furious orange at the bottom. One scribbled frantically in his journal, describing the growing wind and the growl of the fire.

According to the official report, this is where the breakdown in leadership began.

To everyone’s amazement, a Dodge pickup appeared on the road from the upper canyon. Bruce and Paula Hagemeyer had driven past the fire crews earlier in the day on their way to the campground two miles up. A pair of hotshot supervisors had scouted up the road earlier to make sure no one was left, but somehow they had missed each other.

The Hagemeyers had been relaxing, oblivious to the danger, until the thickening smoke convinced them it was time to pack up.

Now they found themselves trapped with the firefighters, with no protective gear or emergency training.

Six Regulars walked a short way up the scree slope for a better view. Just a few yards up from the road, they could see smoke filling the bottom of the canyon and rising in two huge columns that crept closer and closer. The air grew dark with smoke, and the sun turned blood red. The rain of embers turned into a blizzard of ash and fist-sized fireballs.

When the fire appeared around the bend, they could see it had spread across both the river and the road to the west side of the canyon.

Instead of passing by, it was roaring toward them with a noise like an oncoming freight train.

They could hardly hear themselves as they shouted at one another to deploy their shelters. At 5:24 P.M., eight small silver domes appeared on the road. Both the Hagemeyers crammed in one shelter alongside crew member Rebecca Welch.

The six on the scree slope sprinted higher in a futile attempt to find a better place to deploy. They scrambled into their shelters in a tight cluster one hundred feet above the road as flames fell on them like a tsunami.

WE TURNED UP THE Thirtymile road about forty minutes after leaving the base. It didn’t take long on the winding gravel road to reach the deployment site.

The survivors were already gone. The charred remains of the Hagemeyers’ pickup truck sat on its rims, its camper shell melted into aluminum slag. The Regulars’ van right next to it looked completely untouched.

We could see the remains of fire shelters glinting along the road, in the river, and up on the rocks. The corners of some of those on the rocks were peeled back, revealing glimpses of the bodies beneath. A firefighter with a backpack pump was dousing the nearest one with great care.

We stopped and climbed out to prep our saws with oil and gas. One of the others drove, while I took a position by the side door, and the other two sat in the back with the doors open.

Our destination was the end of the road, where the chances of finding any surviving civilians would be highest. But from here on up it was going to be hard going. Dozens of burned trees had fallen across the road, and more were falling constantly. We’d have to cut our way through every one.

We reached our first charred trunk in less than a minute. All of us but the driver jumped out and started sawing as fast as we could. Rocks and small boulders were scattered around the road. When the chain saws quieted, we could hear the crack of trees toppling and the thump of fire-loosened rocks bouncing downhill.

It seemed like it was just a matter of time before something big and heavy came crashing down on the van, or one of us. It was enough to make you shrivel in your shorts. (Farther down the road, a falling tree hit a truck carrying the Okanogan County sheriff, the county coroner, and a few deputies; it knocked off a bumper but caused no serious injuries.)

Our progress was frustratingly slow. Sometimes the fallen trunks were only a few feet apart. It was good we brought four chain saws, because two of them ended up going tango union (a.k.a. tits up) and stopped working. Murphy’s law seldom disappoints: if anything can go wrong, it will, usually at the worst possible time.

It was late evening by the time we reached the end of the road, about two miles from the deployment site as the crow flies. Three civilian vehicles sat gutted by flames, and the air was thick with lingering smoke. A Forest Service law enforcement officer had followed us to help with the search.

There’s a surreal kind of calm after a fire goes through. The wind and noise and blinding light are gone, leaving behind a silent, blackened moonscape.

The sun had disappeared over the rim of the canyon, but there was still a faint glow to the west. Small spot fires and embers flickered in the dimming light. It was a trip through hell’s backyard, everything either burned black or glowing.

We parked the van where the road ended at a turnaround. A small, primitive campground and trailhead were on the other side of the river. The bridge across was still on fire.

We ran across fast enough to keep from getting burned. “Anyone here?” we yelled. “Hello?”

The only response was the hiss and pop of dying embers. It was no place to linger. We made a quick search, called for another minute, and then ran back across the bridge to the van.

We had to clear just as many trees on the way out of the canyon as we did on the way in. Working by the glow of headlights, we cut through another labyrinth of downed timber, wondering the entire time if the next one had our name on it.

All we wanted now was to get back to base in one piece.

It was full dark when we returned to the deployment site. There was a little more activity now, some authorities and a handful of vehicles.

It was a relief being able to just keep driving. There wasn’t much conversation. All of us had experienced fatalities before. No one felt like talking about this one any more than the others we’d seen.

We pulled back into base late at night, filthy, tired, and starving. Satellite news trucks were already parked outside. It’s a four-hour drive from Seattle; they hadn’t wasted any time.

The answering machine at the base was filled with messages. The initial news reports mistakenly said jumpers had been killed, and everyone’s friends and family were desperate for updates. Cell technology was not up to speed here, so it was harder to get word out that we were all safe.

I was in the bathhouse taking a shower when someone yelled, “Is there a Ramos in here?” A good friend had driven twenty-five miles to the base just to see if I was okay.

THIRTYMILE MARKED THE FIRST Forest Service deaths by wildfire since Storm King, seven years earlier almost to the day. Fire investigators started to unravel what had happened literally before the smoke cleared.

The six firefighters who deployed on the scree slope had trouble sealing the bottoms of their shelters against the uneven rocks. Two of them actually left their shelters before the flames passed completely.

In most cases this is the last thing you want do, but here it saved their lives.

One of them, Jason Emhoff, wasn’t wearing gloves. His hands were burning so badly that he threw off his shelter, jumped up, and ran. He hid behind a boulder for a few minutes and then struggled down to the road and climbed inside the crew van.

The second survivor, a squad boss, came down off the rock scree, sprinted across the road, and jumped in the river. He eventually was joined by the ten people who had deployed on the road. All of them had survived the burnover without injury.

The other four who deployed on the scree slope died of asphyxia from inhaling superheated air. Three of them were young crew members, aged eighteen, nineteen, and twenty-one. The other was an experienced thirty-year-old squad boss with two children.

As verified by air attack, the Regulars had made their stand in the most open place in the upper canyon. Between the rocks, road, river, and sandbar, it was nearly free of vegetation. The safety zone should have been safe.

Instead, it seemed like part of the fire peeled off, made a ninety-degree turn, and aimed straight for them. In the spot where the six deployed, barely a hundred square feet, temperatures hit over 1,600 degrees. It was as if a rocket had launched directly over their heads. Just a few yards away temperatures reached only about 500 degrees—survivable, if barely, in a fire shelter.

Nobody knows exactly why it happened. Fire can be strange that way. The Hagemeyers’ pickup was destroyed, but right next to it the Regulars’ van only had its plastic license plate frame melted. Granite rocks cracked in the inferno while bushes along the road were barely charred.

It could have been much worse. The civilians we were searching for were off hiking in the backcountry and turned up safe days later. Among the survivors, the worst injury was Emhoff’s burned hands.

The Hagemeyers were especially lucky to be alive. Thirtymile was the first time three people had survived a burnover inside a one-person shelter. Welch’s quick thinking, scrunching up to make room for all of them, saved their lives.

The Thirtymile Fire burned for almost two weeks and covered 9,300 acres, more than twice as much as the Libby South Fire. It took more than one thousand firefighters and $4.5 million to put it out.

The official Forest Service incident report detailed a laundry list of bad calls and mismanagement, everything from recalling the lookout in the hottest part of the day to not having a backup escape route or safety zone planned out.

The two critical mistakes, the report said, occurred when the crew bosses decided to reengage the fire after backing off and then did little or nothing to prepare their crews for a potential burnover.

They had over forty-five minutes to ready themselves mentally and physically—clearing a deployment site, getting their shelters out, figuring out what to do with the civilians. Daniels had been one of the ten who deployed on the road. As IC he was ultimately in charge, and he drew particular criticism for not being a forceful enough leader.

If it was meant to calm the waters, the report did exactly the opposite. One of its key findings—that the group on the rocks ignored an order from Daniels to return to the road before deploying—infuriated some of the survivors.

The implication that their friends were responsible for their own deaths was too much. The survivors held a press conference soon after the report was issued to present their version of events: namely, that Daniels had never given such an order. The Forest Service ended up revising the report and offering a variety of versions of what happened. One of the versions supports the original accusation, though in slightly milder form.

Daniels, who was probably out of his depth as soon as the fire started growing, ended up being the only fire supervisor to face criminal charges. Four counts of involuntary manslaughter were eventually dropped, but he pleaded guilty to two counts of lying to investigators, including about giving the order to come down off the rocks.

He received a light sentence of three months’ work release. His firefighting career was over. It was the first time an IC had been criminally prosecuted for negligence on a fire, absent malice.

Those last two words are key. A bunch of people screwed up on the Thirtymile Fire, from top to bottom. But no one wanted anyone to die.

Fighting fire is dangerous. Bad things happen sometimes, no matter what you do, no matter how careful you are. It’s a part of the job a lot of people won’t talk about, or try to deny. All firefighters start out knowing there are risks and hazards in this line of work. To some, that’s part of the appeal.

Many questions hang unanswered about Thirtymile, including whether deploying smokejumpers could have averted the disaster to come. As to whether the six should have deployed on the rocks, firefighters have been taught that bare rock can be a safer place to deploy than brush; there have even been cases of firefighters surviving burnovers in rock scree without shelters.

The question that overshadows all the others, though, is why the fire’s fury aimed exactly at those six shelters. That, unfortunately, is unanswerable.