Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America's Most Select Airborne Firefighters - Jason A. Ramos (2015)
REMEMBER WHEN BEING CALLED a nerd was an insult? Now there’s a supercomputer in every purse and pocket, and Silicon Valley is way cooler than Wall Street.
Tech nerd, gearhead, whatever you want to call it, I’m a proud member of the tribe. I’m usually the guy on the plane with the most gizmos. I love testing out new tools, textiles, anything that might make firefighting safer and more effective.
This isn’t a high-tech profession. Much of firefighters’ gear hasn’t changed in decades. Sometimes it’s fine to hold on to things that work, like the parachute or pulaski. But there is a lot of advanced gear already available or on the horizon that could help crews do their job even better.
When I was at Kernville in the mid to late 1990s, we were one of the few helitack bases that had mobile phones. We were always the coolest guys at the fire because we had those big old brick-sized cell phones. They were a great communications tool, but we didn’t keep them very long because we had to pay the charges (two or three hundred dollars a month, plus insane roaming fees) out of our own pockets.
The pocket-sized phones were just taking off when I started jumping. Now it seems like every fifth grader has an iPhone, and you can get phone service if not data on most fires.
It’s a mixed blessing. Being able to call and send weather and intel back and forth from the field can be a huge operational benefit, depending on who’s on the receiving end. Cell phones can save your ass. They can also leave you hanging at the worst possible moment. We’re still a long way from guaranteed connectivity everywhere, especially in the wilderness. In the meantime, jumpers are trained not to depend 100 percent on any devices beyond our arms, legs, and brains. Every piece of gear ever made craps out at some point.
That doesn’t mean you should leave equipment or devices behind. Along with my smartphone, I jump with a portable solar system (powermonkey) to charge my gear and a compact point-of-view video camera like a GoPro. I also carry a portable weather station (Kestrel), a handheld unit that measures and records everything from relative humidity to altitude, barometric pressure, and wind speed.
Depending on the mission, I might take a night-vision monocular or a handheld thermal camera, which comes in handy when you’re searching for hotspots during a mop-up. Some of these devices can pick out a single lit match on a paved road in full sunlight.
One of the biggest challenges on a fire is keeping track of people. Sometimes I carry a GPS satellite communicator that can send and receive text messages and trigger an SOS (inReach). You can send your loved ones a ping to let them know you’re okay. In track mode, the party on the other end can watch your every move, which can be critical if you get hurt or stuck in a bad spot.
GPS tracking systems have been around for a long time—I’ve been playing with them since the early 2000s, and they’re getting cheaper every day. You can walk into Walmart and buy a tracking collar for your hunting dog for under $200.
Some people hear the words tracking system and think Big Brother. Nevertheless, the technology can be a lifesaver in certain situations. When a fire grows quickly from a small blaze to a large, complex conflagration, its command structure also changes, from initial attack to extended attack. The IC can become overloaded and may not always know where all the resources and personnel are located. GPS trackers would let the IC know the locations of the Type 1 and 2 crews that are already on scene.
The government already mandates a type of global positioning system (GPS) called Automatic Flight Following for aircraft. On fires, jumpers call it “Tanker TV” and use it to see who’s in the air, where assets are, and what’s going where.
Some departments thinking outside the box are beginning to use trackers already. The Orlando district of the Florida Forest Service was the first in the country to put GPS trackers on its bulldozers and fire engines after two veteran bulldozer operators were killed in a burnover in 2011. Their vehicles became hung up on stumps and they couldn’t be rescued in time.
Now the agency is equipping vehicles across the state with GPS receivers and radio transmitters. Florida state officials say this “asset tracker system” lets supervisors see a vehicle’s location, speed, and direction on a laptop up to two miles away. It’s not dependent on cellular or Internet connection and only cost about $2 million—a small price to pay to ensure drivers are safe. This is starting to take hold in other agencies as well. I was a guest speaker last year in a safety meeting at the Forest Service in Flagstaff, Arizona, and proud to see a local employee there had done the research and purchased a few personal tracking systems to use for their crews.
GPS receivers are getting better and better at getting a signal even under dense tree canopies and rugged terrain. Working with some of the leading companies, I’ve been able to field-test new units that work even in the worst terrain we encounter. Still not perfect, but far better than what we had years ago.
Imagine if the location of all crews at Yarnell had been visible to overhead on the fire.
THE ONE PIECE OF gear a firefighter depends on above all the rest is his or her emergency fire shelter. The ones we’re issued are better than nothing, but as I’ve explained, they still aren’t nearly good enough.
A former aerospace engineer named Jim Roth is trying to fix that. Jim’s younger brother Roger, a McCall jumper, was one of four people who died at Storm King inside a fully or partially deployed shelter.
One of the last times they were together, Roger showed his brother a fire shelter for the first time. “I said, man, whatever you do, don’t trust that thing,” Jim says. “It sounds like a death trap.”
After the fire, Jim Roth was frustrated by the MTDC’s lack of hard data on shelter performance. He decided to start his own company, Storm King Mountain Technologies, to invent a better one.
When the Forest Service put out its call for new designs, Roth presented four prototypes that he and his team of volunteer experts had created. They were all lighter than the old ones, cost the same, and could withstand 2,000 degrees of direct heat. The National Interagency Fire Center and Forest Service went with an MTDC design anyway.
Roth kept working, experimenting with new materials that can withstand up to 3,000 degrees. His latest design is more angular than the jellybean-shaped New Generation shelter, designed to trap more air inside. It’s also much faster to deploy, folded in a way that makes it pop open almost like pulling a rip cord on a parachute.
Roth is having the design tested under laboratory and actual field conditions. (Fire shelters, incidentally, are one of the few pieces of gear the National Fire Protection Agency hasn’t set a performance-based standard for, but that’s another issue.) His goal is to have a shelter than can withstand 2,000 degrees while staying 200 degrees or less on the inside for two minutes, all with a weight of two pounds (half the weight or those we carry today).
That’s a generous margin of error. Most burnovers are over much faster; flames that are moving too fast to outrun at least pass quickly. At Yarnell, the flame front probably blew over the deployment site in twelve seconds or less. The problem is, the hotshots’ shelters came apart in the first few seconds.
Not every burnover is survivable in a shelter. At Thirtymile, temperatures on the rock slope were probably lethal for close to an hour. There’s still a big gap between conditions firefighters encounter on a regular basis and what our standard fire shelters can withstand. That’s why I’m helping Jim with the crowdfunding side of his project.
Roth’s shelter should be ready for direct sales in time for the 2016 fire season. Firefighters (or their loved ones) can decide if they want to buy them.
It’s like when the families of soldiers in combat zones buy ballistic vests and send them over because the government-supplied armor isn’t enough. Except in this case there’s an extra hitch: technically a firefighter can’t carry a shelter on a federal fire until it gets approved by the MTDC. It’s going to be up to the firefighting community to fight for the right to carry a better, more protective fire shelter.
Firefighters have used signal mirrors forever, but they only work during the day. A laser flare works anytime.
Halfway between a laser pointer and a light saber, these babies are visible for up to thirty miles at night in optimum conditions, and one to five miles during the day.
The one I use, made by Greatland Laser, was designed by an Alaskan air tanker pilot. It has been used successfully as an SOS device and is highly regarded by search-and-rescue pros.
Never trust a piece of gear until it performs in real-world conditions. I’ve used my laser flare to guide jumpers back to camp when their GPS units weren’t receiving.
On one fire I was on, air attack wanted to know our location but the IC was having no luck signaling them with a mirror, even in broad daylight, despite several attempts.
I double-timed it up to the same ridge he was on and aimed my laser flare at the plane.
“We got your green ping,” the pilot said on the radio. I could see the IC looking at his mirror, puzzled.
“What the hell do you have, Ramos?” the IC said when I joined him. I showed him the flare and from then on we used it many times without fail.
The whole concept of air support has recently taken on a new dimension in the form of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
I’ve flown remote-controlled aircraft for years and have become a big believer in their potential as a firefighting tool. They aren’t the answer to every fire, but they can be an incredibly powerful tool in the right situation.
UAVs can see through smoke and detect the smallest fires using regular and infrared cameras. Compared to manned aircraft, some of which can cost thousands of dollars per day plus personnel, UAVs are huge money savers. Most important, they don’t risk lives.
Plane-sized military-style drones have been used on fires as far back as 2007, when NASA loaned its Ikhana aircraft, a modified Predator, to Cal Fire and the Forest Service during the Esperanza Fire near Palm Springs. Fire managers used the drone’s infrared sensors to map the fire’s perimeter from forty-three thousand feet, to track its progress, and to send resources where they were most needed.
I’m more excited about the smaller models that are now within the price range of even casual hobbyists—especially the multi-rotor copters you see everywhere nowadays outfitted with cameras and GoPros. These are perfect for scouting: Are there any homes over that ridge? Are there people up there? A minute or two later and you have your answer.
UAVs can also be a huge benefit in tracking fires at night when other air support is grounded. They’ve started experimenting with this in Spain already.
With their internal gyros and GPS locators, multi-rotor copters can hold a position or even return to where they were launched when they lose the control signal. Planes and powered gliders are more stable in high winds but the copters are rapidly catching up. In the last few years there’s been a huge influx of companies offering different kinds of UAVs that can take off, fly, and land on their own, controlled by software on a laptop.
The technology is there. The challenge is educating fire staff and the powers that be that UAVs are a tool that will increase safety and save money.
The FAA is still trying to figure out how to manage unmanned aircraft safely. During wildfires, they typically declare airspace restrictions to keep helos and retardant aircraft safe from collisions.
So far the answer to flying UAVs is usually no, but sometimes the FAA makes exceptions. In the summer of 2014, for example, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) got approval to use them on the Carlton Complex Fire, the largest in state history, which was burning right in our backyard at NCSB.