Chapter 14 - 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 14

THE NOISE A LARGE fire makes is impossible to describe. People compare it to a freight train or a jet engine. To me it’s more of a natural sound, a massive one—part roar, part scream, mixed with waves crashing and volcanoes erupting.

You know how there’s a difference when someone is just yelling at you and when they’re truly pissed off? You can hear it in their voice—something changes.

It’s like that with a fire. It starts off small and can be defused in seconds, almost like an argument. Sometimes it starts yelling, though, and if it keeps growing, we’ll say “she’s really pissed.”

At that point nothing can stop it.

In 2005, another NCSB jumper and I were double-timing through brush on a fire near Lake Chelan in central Washington. Branches slapped our faces and the thrum of helicopter blades filled the hazy air.

The spot fire below us was already yelling, and it sounded like she was about to get truly pissed.

We came on a pulaski and a radio lying on the broken trail. The only reason jumpers would drop either would be to lighten up. That, or they are moving so fast they don’t even know they dropped some gear.

Either way, whoever left them must really have been hustling. I wondered what the jumper could see that we couldn’t.

Eight of us had jumped onto the runway of the local airport. We were picked up and driven into the town of Lake Chelan, at the lake’s southern tip, for a briefing. The fire was in the hills above town and was already threatening homes.

This area gets a lot of fires in the summer. Eleven years before, the Tyee Fire had burned 210 square miles. Another 235 square miles had burned in the past ten years. A record low winter snowpack had led the governor to declare a statewide drought emergency this March.

People were still hoping this fire season wouldn’t be so bad, if only because there wasn’t much left to burn.

It took us about forty-five minutes to hike up to the fire. At first it was business as usual, working in light fuels and timber with a good helo pilot and one foot in the black (the burned-out zone).

Then I got drenched.


Getting hit with water drops is part of the job when you’re working with rotors and tankers. With larger Type 1 ships, you better find a safe spot first: water weighs over eight pounds a gallon and these guys dump them by the thousands. They’ll give a heads-up, but you still want to keep an eye peeled skyward.

We work close in with smaller Type 3 rotors, since there’s less chance of getting washed off the side of the mountain.

Today was unusual for two reasons. The pilot was dipping out of Lake Chelan, a deep lake filled with glacial runoff that’s usually in the 40s at this time of year.

For smokejumpers in the Northwest, being too cold is a problem more often than being too hot. At high elevations there can easily be snow on the ground until mid-July or even later. Being damp is the norm, not the exception.

When it’s over 110˚F and you’re cutting line for hours, like some California fires I’ve been on, bucket drops are your friend.

On a hot day there are few things better than taking a running jump into a cool lake. Now imagine the water is near freezing and a hundred gallons of it is landing on your head. Twice.

The first bucket drop gave me goose bumps, and after the second, I was shivering like a wet dog.

I took a few seconds to wring out my gear in the lull as the helo refilled and came back on station. But it wasn’t until that afternoon before I was feeling warm again.

We were starting to get a lot of rollout. Rolling embers can help a fire flank you or get below you, so we were keeping a sharp eye out.

I was working near another jumper when a rock the size of a playground ball came bouncing down the hill. Before he could move, it rolled right between his legs, trailing smoke like a meteorite. It was like something out of a Roadrunner cartoon—except if it had hit him, he wouldn’t have popped back up like Wile E. Coyote.

He looked at me with wide eyes that said, Did you see that?

We went back to work for another few minutes before he stopped again and shook his head. “I’m done,” he said, and set off for the safety zone on a ridgeline below us.

It wasn’t long before the rest of us were in agreement. We were starting to see extreme fire 'margin-bottom:0cm;margin-bottom:.0001pt;text-align: justify;text-indent:18.0pt;line-height:normal'>The JIC radioed everyone to head down toward the safety zone on a ridge below. As usual, all eight of us were spread out around the fire: sawyers out front cutting, diggers cutting line behind, experienced lookouts up high.

Everyone started hiking downhill toward the safety zone at his or her own speed. No rush yet.

I was one of the last out. I came upon another NCSB jumper, and followed him along a game trail the jumpers ahead of us had found. We ended up in an area of high brush. Being surrounded by fuels is not the best place to be. Plus, a spot fire had ignited below us and was starting to push up the hill.

Air attack, flying overhead in a small fixed-wing plane, was calling the JIC on the radio, but he wasn’t responding.

After a few seconds, I grabbed my own radio. “Air attack, jumper Ramos, go ahead.”

“Jumper Ramos, your location?”

“Working our way down to the other jumpers in a safety zone.”

“Jumper Ramos, can you give us your location?”

“Roger that, I will ping you a mirror flash on your next orbit.”

We kept walking through the brush until I could hear the plane coming back around. I pulled a signal mirror from my chest pocket, where I always keep one, along with a compass, for quick access. I angled it to flash sunlight at the plane.

“Jumper Ramos, I got your flash. You have a spot below you. You guys need to keep heading sidehill. I’m sending a Type 1 rotor to keep that in check.” The heavy helicopter would be dropping close to two thousand gallons of water to support us.

We could hear the roar of the fire below us and see some serious convection pushing up into the sky.

One second everything is fine and you’re taking a stroll down a mountainside. The next you’re completely focused on the moment and wondering What the fuck?

I turned to the other jumper.“Well, we got two options, dude,” I said. “If we hang out, we’re gonna burn the shit out of our Spam. Or we can push hard and get the hell out of here.”

The air around us was filling with smoke.

The choice was clear: haul ass. We took off through the brush. When we found the discarded pulaski and radio, I stuck the radio in my pack and kept tight on the other jumper’s tail. We headed across and up the hillside, with the fire below and behind us.

Amid the radio chatter and crackling flames, one sound stood out: the rumble of a sky crane, a Type 1 rotor. I radioed the pilot to go ahead and drop, we’re clear.

Hearing the sound of thousands of gallons of water crashing to the ground is enough to give you goose bumps. The hillside hisses and small rivers appear out of nowhere, sweeping rocks and other blackened debris downhill.

These pilots are the best of the best. Many times I’ve given them my thanks and a handshake back at base for covering our asses.

We made it to the ridgetop in a matter of minutes. The other jumpers were already there taking a quick breather and discussing regrouping tactics with the JIC.

I handed the radio back to its owner. “Thanks,” the jumper mumbled.

The choice to pull back on that fire was clear, based on decades if not centuries of collective experience. And it was still touch-and-go for a moment or two.

What if the options aren’t so clear? If nothing else, wildland firefighting is a series of choices: whether to engage in the first place, when and with what resources; how to best structure the effort; and whether to bail or keep fighting when—not if—the situation changes.

These are all questions worth reexamining as forest fires get progressively larger and more people die fighting them. The worst year in almost two decades for wildland firefighters fatalities was 2013, with thirty-four deaths, including nineteen in a single incident in Arizona.

The climate is changing, more people are moving into fire-prone areas, and we’re still dealing with the legacy of over half a century of total fire suppression. If there was ever a moment to rethink the big questions, now is the time.

FIRE USED TO BE an integral part of the cycle of nature. Huge parts of North America burned on a regular basis, every few years in some places, every decade or century in others. The resulting patchwork of burned and unburned areas created natural firebreaks.

Plants adapted to fire, and in places that burned frequently, they often came to depend on it. Some species of pine only release their seeds after a fire scorches their cones open. One reason the California chaparral is so flammable is the oil coating on the leaves of the plants—which also happen to have fire-activated seeds.

Fire fertilizes the soil with ash and helps seedlings sprout by removing old growth and letting in light. Animals and birds eat the new seeds and berries, nest in dead trees, and hunt in the open spaces.

After our twentieth-century experiment with complete fire suppression, we now have forests with twenty to fifty times as many trees as they did before. Flames spread more easily, ground fires become crown fires. Fires burn hotter and kill everything, even big old trees that used to survive burns with little more than scorched bark.

We’ve eased off on the suppression, but overgrown forests are only part of the problem. Now global climate change is heating things up: 2014 was the hottest year on record. In places like the western United States, that means drier fuels, lower humidity, and drought.

The effects on wildfire ripple out like lightning. The mountain pine beetle, for example, has seen its breeding season expanded by drought and warmer winters. The beetles have killed seventy thousand square miles of pine forests in the western United States and Canada in the past decade, more than all fires combined. It’s one of the worst insect outbreaks ever in North America. Those dead forests are primed to burn.

If you follow the news, you know what all this means: big fires are back.

Granted, they’re not the multimillion-acre monsters of a hundred years ago. Forests are more fragmented now, and we’re much better at keeping them from burning.

But wildfires have gotten much worse even since the turn of the millennium. The average fire is three times larger than in the 1980s, and fire season now lasts ten months instead of five or six. Over the past decade more acres have burned every year, on average, than in any other decade on record.

Every year seems to bring new records. In 2011, close to nine million acres burned across the United States. (The average in the 1970s was two hundred thousand acres.) Arizona and New Mexico both saw their largest fires ever.

In 2012, 9.3 million acres burned, the most since we started keeping track in 1960. New Mexico and Colorado both saw new state records. The Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs was the most destructive (346 homes) in state history—until the Black Forest Fire in 2013 burned more than five hundred homes and killed two people.

In comparison, 2013 was a respite: only 4.3 million acres burned. The Rim Fire in the Sierra Nevada was California’s third largest ever, at 257,314 acres. The “Golden State” should consider changing its nickname to “State of Drought”: 2013 was California’s driest year since 1885, and the year after started with the entire state in severe drought—as in 100 percent of the third-largest state in the country.

Some scientists are calling the ongoing drought that has gripped the West since 2000 a “megadrought.” This is the kind of thing that comes along every thousand years or so and tends to makes civilizations collapse. Extended dry periods have been implicated in the demise of everyone from the ancestral Puebloans of the Southwest to Cambodia’s Khmer Empire.

In the more immediate future, one Forest Service study predicts wildfires will more than double across parts of the West by 2050. And just as climate change fuels wildfires, the fires boost climate change by sending particles into the atmosphere and killing trees that would otherwise capture carbon.

It costs the government a lot of money to fight all these fires. That means less for things like recreation, research, and, ironically, fire prevention. Meanwhile, firefighters numbers have dropped by 40 percent since the 1980s.

State and local governments have to pick up the slack. Sometimes that means drawing manpower from unexpected places. California and Nevada use thousands of prison inmates to fight forest fires every year. The practice saves California alone a billion dollars a year, probably in part because they pay the inmates $1 per hour. A few try to escape every year, while others become firefighters after they’re released.

One of the main reasons costs are soaring is because of where more and more people are building homes: the wildland-urban interface, or WUI. When development starts to creep into forests, chaparral, or other fire-prone areas, some of these buildings are going to burn. About 40 percent of the houses in America are in the WUI now, and it’s being built out at three acres every minute.

I can understand the desire—who wouldn’t want a home (or second home) on the edge of a national forest or overlooking a beautiful desert valley? The problem is that most of these buildings aren’t constructed with fire-retardant materials or defensible space around them.

When the flames arrive, state and federal governments end up footing most of the bill for fighting and cleanup. WUI fires eat up about a third of the Forest Service’s fire suppression budget now. So local governments don’t have much incentive to do anything that might slow down construction.

It’s money and politics—but it puts firefighters in danger. And in central Arizona in the scorching summer of 2013, it led to tragedy.