Chapter 17 - 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 17

IT WAS A DRY spring and a hot summer in 2014. At the beginning of July, we had ten straight days of temperatures above 93˚F at the base. On Monday, July 14, a dry lightning storm set off small fires across north-central Washington, concentrated in Okanogan and Chelan Counties.

Four fires in the Methow Valley, east and south of Winthrop, were immediately reported by residents. They waited for fire crews to come put them out, but even though NCSB was within shouting distance, the powers above had different plans.

Residents kept calling in smoke reports as the fires flickered and smoldered in the sagebrush and grass for the next two days. They started to grow.

Then they blew up, converged, and made history.

On Wednesday, one of the fires jumped the Methow River twenty miles south of Winthrop, burned the “Carlton Castle” to the ground in minutes, and roared up the Libby Creek drainage. (This was exactly the same route that the Libby South Fire had taken thirteen years earlier, just before the Thirtymile Fire.) The entire watershed was evacuated in less than an hour.

On Thursday, the winds picked up from the northwest, following the canyon of the Methow River downstream to the Columbia. Gusts over 30 mph sent the fire, now two large burns, into overdrive. Between 3 P.M. and midnight it spread across two hundred square miles, burning an acre every four seconds. The speed and intensity of the run took almost everyone by surprise.

The tiny town of Pateros, where the Methow River meets the Columbia, was directly in its path. Police officers ran from door to door shouting for people to get out as fireballs rolled down the hills toward the houses. One witness described it as something out of the movie The Mummy, like a giant evil face of flames.

The power went out all the way to Winthrop, forty miles up the canyon. The scene was apocalyptic, especially after dark, when the air was thick with smoke and the only light came from the flames all around.

The fires merged the next day, becoming what’s called a complex. Over the next two weeks close to three thousand people fought to get it under control. They threw everything at the blaze: seven National Guard Black Hawks, a DC-10 air tanker, more than a hundred fire engines, thirteen bulldozers.

By Friday evening, the town of Twisp was under Level II evacuation as well. Residents were warned that they might have to evacuate immediately and were told that if it went to Level III (i.e., get out now), there probably wouldn’t be time for authorities to notify them in advance. Power, phone, and fiber optic lines were burned through for miles.

People were cleaning out the two supermarkets in the valley and driving the twisting road three hours across the North Cascades to buy generators. Many residents had no electricity, phone service, or Internet. Only Verizon drove in backup generators to keep their cell towers going, earning themselves plenty of loyal customers for life.

Those who could still get online via Verizon were confused by conflicting information on the news and a temporary breakdown in official communications. Facebook became the only source of up-to-date information for most people in the Methow, even though not all posts were accurate.

We launched missions out of the NCSB base, driving to different locations and fighting the fire next to the road or hiking in. We call those missions “pounders.” It’s the same kind of work, minus the plane and parachute ride.

One day we overheard a radio call about a smoke report down in the valley that was being called inaccessible. We looked at our forest map and couldn’t figure out why.

Two of us drove to where we could see the smoke rising from the side of a mountain and parked.

Inaccessible? Is this a joke? I took a compass bearing, marked our location, and geared up for the hike. A small out-of-state fire crew pulled up just as we were getting ready to head out.

“You guys are hiking in?” one said. “Our crew’s not able to do it.”

“Cool, no worries,” I said, “We’ll take care of it.”

“You guys jumpers?”


We reached the fire in about an hour, put it out, and were back to the base before midnight: a perfect example of what two jumpers can do when others won’t.

President Obama declared a state of emergency on July 23, by which time the fire had covered 390 square miles. Rain came the next day, but we were still seeing green alfalfa fields burn into August.

Over three hundred homes were destroyed. Luckily there was only one death, a man who had a heart attack trying to save his house.

The aftermath looked like something out of World War II: blackened hillsides laced with exposed game trails, bombed-out cars, chimneys rising from charred house foundations.

At the time of this printing, 196 families are suing the state Department of Natural Resources for letting the fire grow out of control. Many witnesses say their homes burned as DNR crews stood by. People would beg them for help and the crews would say they didn’t have permission.

Both state and federal fire agencies, by their response times and actions, seemed to have had their hands tied by politics, at who knows what level. What emerged in the aftermath of the Carlton Complex appeared to me to paint a picture of jurisdictional hangups and issues regarding who owned what land, that prevented those agencies from taking timely and effective action. This kind of thing has been happening for years; they’ve just been lucky up to now. I’ve seen fire response times stretch from minutes to hours to days.

Our “inaccessible” fire was just one example. Leaders need to lead, not play politics. You need to put every available resource on fires that are in high-threat areas ASAP, like they do in some other states in the West. We should stop having so many jurisdictional disagreements and move toward more mutual aid and working together. Better to have the resources and not need them. It’s crazy that high-threat forests like the Okanogan don’t seem to have the same kind of protocols. Maybe there’s some other strategy at play up top that we aren’t privy to.

Could jumpers have kept this firestorm from happening, right here in our own backyard, by snuffing those four starts when they were still small?

It is the whole reason smokejumping was started back in 1939.

What I can say is that in my career we’ve only had to call for help a handful of times. Otherwise we’ve put out every fire we jumped. This shows the level of professionalism and success that exists across the entire jump program.

IT’S A LONG ROAD, developing and testing new tools and showing people what they can do.

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that there could be a better tool, a better textile, a better way to do things. My dad always told me to buy the best—it won’t fall apart on you like the cheap crap will. Even at the very beginning of my career, my captain at Riverside noticed my obsession with tinkering to improve things. I ended up being the equipment manager at the fire station before I turned twenty-one.

Over the years, guys would always joke that if you needed some tool or piece of gear and couldn’t find it, Ramos probably had already been testing it for months. So it seemed only natural to finally get a business license and start my own company, Product Research Gear, LLC (PRg).

I call it a solutions company: we try our hardest to fix the problem, finding innovative answers to solve existing scenarios. We’ve vetted, evaluated, designed, and collaborated. We’ve taken things apart, burned them, pushed them past the failure point, and put them back together again. We’ve worked with some of the biggest companies on the planet in fields like tech, textiles and clothing, advanced medical products for field professionals, and helmets and footwear for wildland firefighters.

People ask me all the time why I have devoted so much of my life to this. I spend countless hours working on projects that I never make a dime on. But my answer is always the same: if I use something on a mission, or any other situation, I want something that actually works, all the time and under every condition, or at least as close as you can get.

Sometimes this is a matter of life or death. And that’s what PRg is all about: finding the best of the best, and when it doesn’t exist, working with the best companies to make it happen.

Jumpers tend to be old-school about their equipment. Pulaskis are tried and true, they get the job done. People have invented a few different machines over the years to try to make the job easier. Years ago, Francis Lufkin himself created a line-cutting machine, with the help of a machine company called Hofco. It looked like a weedeater with chains instead of string attached. He invented a line digger too. But neither really caught on, probably because of the limitations of terrain and the sheer weight of the machines. The pulaski is still the tool of choice for wildland firefighters throughout the United States.

There are two parachute systems used by today’s smokejumpers, the ram air or square used by the BLM and selected USFS bases, and the round parachute used by most USFS jumpers. Each system has its pros and cons. The bottom line is to deliver the jumper safely to the ground.

The system that works for us at NCSB is the FS-14. It’s simple, even archaic—and has recorded exactly zero fatalities from not opening since day one.

That hasn’t stopped the Forest Service from looking into switching every base over to the square, ram-air canopies that BLM jumpers use.

Parachutes can be a very touchy subject among jumpers. It’s natural that anything you literally depend on for your life will evoke intense feelings and fierce loyalty. Some jumpers on both sides will tell you their system is the best, no question, because it’s what they know.

Personally, I’m a round parachute fan. I’ve been a jumper since 1999 and it’s the only chute I’ve used. So take all this with a grain of salt.

The ram-air is a great tool for certain conditions. It can handle higher winds than the FS-14. It offers more precise steering and in some cases softer landings. It’s well suited to open places like Alaska and the Great Basin, which is part of the reason the BLM started using that system in 1983.

But in my opinion, I’m not sure switching every jump base over to square chutes is the solution. In my years of experience, I’ve seen plenty of valid arguments for both sides. It’s not a cut-and-dried situation.

The ram-air canopy is basically an inflatable wing, so it needs a certain minimum forward airspeed to function. If you go too slow, the canopy can stall out and collapse. Round chutes don’t do this.

Ram-air landings are softer, if everything goes right. If not, the canopy has a higher forward speed which could raise the odds of a rougher landing and maybe even an injury.

Before I started jumping, rumors had it that round parachutes always had the hardest landings. But after joining the program, I’ve seen a bunch of jumpers who routinely, seemingly always, land nearly as softly as their chutes do.

Mid-air collisons are a hazard no matter what chute you’re on. When jumpers with round canopies collide they tend to bounce off each other, while ram-air chutes would more likely get tangled like a kite. But rounds can tangle too, and a collison a few years back ended up with a leg injury that later led to an amputation.

Ram-air systems do tend to have higher malfunction rates at both high and low speeds, most of which require reserve deployment. Injuries tend to be more severe with the faster canopies, broken femurs versus sprained ankles.

Three jumpers have died using the ram-air system since 1991, when a Missoula squad leader was killed when his main didn’t deploy and he was too low to pull his reserve. No one has ever died from an FS-14 not opening.

Both chute systems have their own pluses and minuses. Instead of one solution for everyone, we should look at terrain and other jump factors and choose the right tool for the right job. Proponents say using ram-air chutes would let Forest Service jumpers land closer to some fires and get them out sooner. But in the Pacific Northwest, it seems pretty clear that our round chutes will allows us get us way closer to the fires here in the heavily forested, rugged terrain we need to land in to get close to the fires, finding small openings between trees that the round parachute can land in. I use a simple analogy: think of a plane compared to a helicopter. Which would you rather use to hit a tiny clearing surrounded by old growth?

The government loves to standardize things, for cost savings or sheer simplicity. But then there’s the fact that the switch would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $12 million.

And maybe the most far-fetched, I’ve even heard people worry that if the parachute switch does happen, and it results in more accidents, it could become one more excuse to shut down the whole jump program. The future of American smokejumping is far from certain.

I’ve mentioned the antijumper attitudes that linger in certain corners of the firefighting world.

To some, we’re a colorful anachronism, like cavalry on a battlefield. Others assume we’re too expensive, that we get hurt too often. Some assume that a situation might be too dangerous for us to jump, because they don’t know how well-trained we are, how experienced, and how valuable the service we provide is. They seem to forget that we are absolute professionals on rough terrain jumping since 1939, and have helped train other Tier-1 entities in the U.S. and internationally on this specialty. We do know what we’re doing.

In the matter of expenses, the average cost for an eight-person load of jumpers in a Casa jump ship, including two hours of flight time and a sixteen-hour workday—with hazard pay—is $6,500. Compare that to the millions of dollars it costs to fight huge conflagrations.

The average injury rate for Forest Service jumpers is 7 per 1,000 jumps—and only 3 of those are serious.

The bias can get almost comical. When Disney was making the movie Planes: Fire and Rescue, some of the artists visited the Redding base so they could get the details right—the details of the cartoon smokejumper planes.

When the movie came out, other firefighters started commenting on social media, saying things like, “Why all the attention on jumpers as usual?”


I know, what’s the problem? But it is a problem if it affects whether or not jumpers are put to use.

If the people who make the decisions aren’t familiar with and educated about what we can do, history has proven that we don’t get dispatched. And we all know that “excess” resources tend to get cut. In other words, use it or lose it.

I’ve had civilians call me in person and ask why we weren’t in the air. This happens to a lot of jumpers, in fact. Sometimes there are good reasons: maybe there’s a hand crew on their way in, maybe the fire is in a different jurisdiction, who knows. I just tell them to call 911 again.

We’re much more likely to be called to a forest where the FMO used to be a jumper. Nowadays some haven’t met a smokejumper in years.

Some fire managers don’t realize that we can jump close in or farther out, that we can land at an airport, that we can land near water, and so on. We’re highly trained and have years of experience, enough to make the call about how dangerous a given situation is, and how to deal with the situation appropriately.

Jumpers are the Swiss Army knives of wildland firefighting. We don’t just parachute into remote fires. We can also make it to close-in fires by helo or vehicle, often faster than anyone else.

We’re self-sufficient for the first two or three days of an incident. All of us have some kind of medical training, often as first responders, EMTs, and even medics at times. All our aircraft are fully equipped with trauma gear so that we can help support search and rescue or whatever else is needed.

We can build helispots, drop supplies by paracargo, carry out prescribed fires, clear dangerous snags, clear trails, collect wildlife data—you name it. We’re problem solvers.

All this is laid out in the Forest Service’s National User Guide for smokejumpers. It’s nineteen pages long.

If everyone read this manual regularly, we’d probably get called out a lot more than we do. The right tool for the right job.

Wildland firefighting has changed dramatically in the past decade. As fires have grown, the mind-set of fighting them has shifted too.

As more and more homes are built in the wildland-urban interface, fire managers are reluctant to send resources like jumpers to remote fires in case they need them later to protect close-in communities.

I’ve lost count of the times a fire we could have easily put out in its first few hours grew into a rager because someone “played it safe” and waited. Yarnell was a perfect example of that. Storm King too. And obviously, the Carlton Complex.

Once I was on my way to a boost in Silver City, a satellite base in New Mexico, when a tape recorder in my jump gear was activated by accident. When I played the recording later, I could hear the loadmaster chatting with his buddies as they put our equipment aboard.

They saw the smokejumper gear and started talking about how crazy those guys were.

Whether or not it’s true, that mystique is something that can help ensure the program survives and flourishes. There’s an institutional modesty—an understandable one—that make jumpers reluctant to talk about our work outside our own small world.

This self-reliance is a double-edged sword; half the time we fly in, finish the job, and leave before anyone even knows we’re there. We’re not heroes. We just provide a unique public service that we have become too reluctant to promote.

We need to overcome the insularity and let people know what we do. Because if we don’t tell our story, someone else will. A few great books have been written by and about jumpers. Beyond that, there’s not too much. Besides the film Red Skies of Montana back in 1952, there’s Howie Long tossing axes in the movie Firestorm, a few made-for-TV movies, and various cable documentary series.

Jumpers aren’t moving up into leadership positions as often as they used to. The old guard is dying out. Only a few of the Triple Nickles are left. Robert Sallee, the last survivor of Mann Gulch, passed away in May 2014.

Whenever I hear other jumpers wondering about the future of the program, I tell them, Leave a legacy! Be part of the solution. This is especially important now that we’re under a microscope more than ever.

Being a smokejumper is grueling, thrilling, tedious, rewarding, and ridiculous.

So why do it? With all the danger and drudgework, the headaches and hard labor, what’s the appeal?

It’s not the pay. Jumper salaries start at around $31,000 per year, depending on what government pay scale a jumper is on. We get 25 percent on top of that for overtime and hazard pay, which includes any time we’re on a fire mission, jumping or dropping cargo—but not if we’re just flying or on practice jumps.

It’s definitely not the effect it has on our love lives. This job is notorious for the strain it puts on relationships. Dating a firefighter or smokejumper sounds exciting, and in the short term it often is. But the appeal of your partner being called away constantly to do dangerous work at a moment’s notice, to who knows where and for who knows how long, quickly wears thin.

It’s hard to find the stability that’s so important to settling down and raising kids. Some jumpers can and do make it work, putting their shoulder to the wheel for three to six months a year and working other jobs and spending time with their families the rest of the time.

As any of them will tell you, it’s not easy. Some jumpers will put in more than a thousand hours of overtime in a year.

Every jumper has his or her own reasons for wanting to join this profession badly enough to endure rookie training and all the rest.

There’s the satisfaction of facing huge physical and mental challenges. The undeniable excitement of danger. The camaraderie, and the love/hate relationship that comes from depending on others for your life and vice versa.

There’s the gratification of working in the most beautiful places on earth and seeing the real-world evidence of your efforts. Being able to focus on only one thing and escape the rest of the world for months at a time.

Jumpers aren’t always the easiest folks to handle. Male or female, we’re all alphas, and our training amplifies this inclination. The result is all chiefs and no braves, to paraphrase an old saying.

The lessons of smokejumping carry over into the rest of life. Facing danger, acting decisively, taking the initiative, sticking to a plan, having a fallback position—it’s all excellent training for success however you define it. Jumpers have gone on to become top athletes, business leaders, entrepreneurs, professors, doctors, even an astronaut.

There’s also the pride of being one of fewer than six thousand people to join a seventy-five-year-old profession.

For me it’s all of the above, plus more that’s difficult to put into words.

Not to get too mystical about it, but there’s something about fire that touches something deep and hardwired in the human soul.

You know how easy it is to lose yourself in the dancing flames of a campfire. Now multiply that mesmerizing combination of beauty and danger by an almost infinite amount.

A forest fire at night or the ash-covered aftermath of a big burn is something out of another world. Smoky air shimmering with heat, showers of burning pine needles, embers shooting up like fireworks. The indescribable noise of all that energy being released as heat and light, a process that’s older than life itself.

There’s a reason the ancients considered fire one of the four elements.

I took two oaths in my career as a firefighter, one for the State of California and one for the U.S. Forest Service. For the latter, I stood and raised my right hand and recited these words aloud:

I, Jason Anthony Ramos, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic;

that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same;

that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.

So help me God.

It’s an honor to carry on a long tradition of public service, helping make this country I love a better place. Public service is something I think everyone should do at some point, no matter how big or small the effort. As my dad always said, “Do something, son.”

Every time I find myself standing in the doorway of a plane, getting ready to commute to work by parachute, facing all the unknowns in the air and down there on the ground, I’m sure of one thing: it’s not just a privilege but an honor to have offered my service, alongside all the others past and present, as United States smokejumper.

The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.