Chapter 1 - 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 1

LATE-SUMMER SUNRISE OVER THE Owens Valley, 1992. Snow lingers on the orange-lit Sierra Nevada to the west.

Across the wide basin, Telescope Peak and the rest of Death Valley is silhouetted in the morning glare.

A gray ’72 Chevy LUV, packed with gear, rolls north up Route 395 along the base of the mountains.

At the wheel is a nineteen-year-old Puerto Rican kid from the SoCal suburbs, anxious and excited, on his way to start an ass-kicking new job in the middle of nowhere.

That’s me.

A week earlier I had gotten an offer for a seasonal position in the California Desert District, working on an engine crew with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). During the long, dark drive north, I had plenty of time to wonder what exactly I was getting into. Is the captain going to be a hard-ass? Can I handle the workload? Will the crew eat me alive?

Growing up in Los Angeles and Riverside Counties, I had already seen my share of crazy shit. From the natural disasters that plagued the state—earthquakes, floods, forest fires—to the drug-fueled violence of the 1980s, era of Boulevard Nights and Colors, California was not a boring place to live.

In a year with the Riverside County Fire Department, I’d rolled out to fatal house fires, cardiac arrests, and bloody car accidents. I had even worked several wildfires, though nothing too big. (I burned my foot on my very first one, walking through the flames like a greenhorn rookie.)

I had no plans after high school. College wasn’t an option; my grades sucked. Law enforcement was out since, in my world, “cop” meant “narc.” I thought about going into the military, hopefully as a long-range marksman. I grew up precision shooting with my dad. By the time I was in my late teens, my dad’s challenge was for me to shoot the head of FDR out of a dime at a hundred yards—that part was easy—then to put four more shots behind it—a little bit more difficult. So a job that used those skills sounded interesting.

But something about fire had always fascinated me. Like every boy and half the girls in America, I played with toy fire engines and put out imaginary blazes when I was young.

I remember standing on the roof of our house in my early teens with my father, watching a wildfire eat up a hillside just a few blocks away. I had never seen anything like it: the incredible, almost industrial heat, the hum of activity, the sheer relentless power of the flames.

The air was filled with an eye-stinging haze, the blare of fire engines, and the buzz of helicopters. Fat air tankers swooped in to dump loads of rust-colored retardant.

It was mesmerizing, like staring into a campfire the size of a city. At one point I started to climb down off the roof. My father asked what the hell I was doing, told me to stay put.

I just wanted to see it up close.

My two older brothers and I did our fair share of backyard combustion: firecrackers, M-80s, gasoline, anything that would go boom. Hardly a day would go by without something blowing up or being charred to an unrecognizable mess.

My oldest brother worked as a U.S. Forest Service firefighter in the Angeles National Forest. In junior high I would sneak into his room and check out his gear, still scented like a campfire from days in the woods.

So when the BLM offer came, I jumped at the chance. Filling out paperwork at the local office, I heard a radio squawking in the background. A dispatcher was trying to contact an engine in the field. The call went out, over and over, with nothing but static in response.

Wow, I thought. These guys are so far off the grid they’re even out of radio range.

This is going to be awesome.

The day before I had crammed my stuff into my pickup and rolled out of my parents’ driveway at 3 A.M. My mother had packed me a cooler full of home-cooked Puerto Rican meals in Ziploc bags—chicken and rice (arroz con pollo), meat-stuffed potatoes (rellenos de papa), all the good stuff.

My parents, first-generation immigrants from San Juan by way of the Bronx, had taught me to always be punctual. As a firefighter I’d had it drummed in even deeper: always ready, never late. It’s part of our motto.

This was my first time truly on my own. I couldn’t wait to start.

The sun revealed the tiny town of Olancha, barely more than a few buildings and an intersection, at the south end of what was left of Owens Lake.

The story of how the lake was sucked almost dry to supply the booming city of Los Angeles was made famous in the movie Chinatown. Now the dry lake bed causes dust storms so bad they close down the highway.

I was an hour and a half early. I decided to take a slow recon past the fire station, which turned out to be more or less a mobile home. Parked next to it was a huge, bright yellow truck that looked like something Mad Max would buy if he won the lottery.

An older guy in a T-shirt and swim trunks was working on a Volkswagen bus nearby. Off to one side was a pile of windsurfing boards and gear.

At least that’s one coworker I might get along with, I thought.

I ate breakfast in town and returned to the station. Inside was a small, clean office with mountain bikes leaning against one wall. A man came out of a hallway wearing a pair of underwear and nothing else.

“You the new guy?” I nodded and shook the hand of my new station manager.

“Sit tight, you’re a little early,” he said, and disappeared.

I knew this was normal—a firehouse is home to anyone on duty, with everything that implies—but I was tired from the long drive, and that initial eyeful gave the moment a touch of the surreal.

A few minutes later another dude emerged. He had clearly just woken up, but at least he had clothes on.

“Hey, Snapperhead,” he said, quoting Andrew Dice Clay. “You’re the new guy?”

From then on I was officially “Snapperhead,” or just “Snapper.” I hadn’t been here half an hour and I already had a nickname.

It could have been a lot worse, I figured.

The other three crew members eventually wandered in, all rugged-looking guys my age or older. As everyone milled around getting ready for the day, I watched the Old Kahuna I’d seen outside put on a pair of logger-style boots with two-inch heels.

As a firefighter, I’d always been taught your boots were one of your most important pieces of equipment, and you should treat them accordingly. Take care of them, and they’ll take care of you.

This guy laced his with such precision it was riveting.

A FEW MORNINGS AFTER I arrived, the station manager said, “Let’s go for a run, Snapperhead.” I followed him east, squinting into the rising sun.

This is it, I thought—if I can’t keep up with him, I’m done.

I stuck to him like Velcro as we ran and ran. I kept up, but it hurt.

“You’re in shape, at least,” he muttered when we finished. “We’ll go for a real run this week.”

AS THE WEEKS PASSED, I gradually started to relax and feel truly a part of the six-man crew.

We were in the BLM’s California Desert District, which covers about a quarter of the state, including parts of the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts.

In other words, one big tinderbox.

We responded to wildfires in remote rural areas and pretty much anything that came in through 911 except medical emergencies. Part of the job involved helping out the local volunteer fire department with structural fires and vehicle accidents, which I was more than familiar with from my time at Riverside.

Some missions lasted for days. One took us to Fort Hunter Liggett, an army fort south of Monterey, where soldiers practiced field maneuvers and trained with live ammo. At one point we drove out of a valley in the middle of nowhere and found ourselves face-to-face with two or three tanks and a dozen camo-clad soldiers fully decked out in gear and guns.

Times like that I was glad we were in the Mog, that crazy machine that stood guard beside the firehouse. Unimog, its full name, stands for UNIversal-MOtor-Gerät, or “universal motor machine,” in German. These Mercedes-built monsters can do damn near anything: fight fires, plow snow, or carry heavy equipment, anywhere from the mountains to the desert to the jungle.

We could follow fire dozers into steep terrain, where I quickly learned why it had “oh-shit” handles all over the inside. Seeing other firefighters watch us drive through parts of the fire line was priceless. (Supporting ground troops was always equal parts “go-go-go” and “get-the-hell-out-of-here.”)

Our Mog was bright BLM yellow, with red lights and sirens for clearing traffic. It had a front blade like a bulldozer, so we could plow our way into remote places other vehicles couldn’t go.

On lunch breaks during fire operations, I would sit in the shade underneath the chassis. It took a full-sized Dodge Ram pickup with an extended bed just to carry the spare tire. When we came to a stop, the Mog would rock for a few seconds like a boat.

Can you tell I loved that engine?

When you work for the fire service, your job consists of waiting for something to go wrong and being ready to go the moment it does.

Even when we weren’t out on a fire, the days were still full: PT, physical training, first thing in the morning, followed by checking and rechecking our gear, cleaning the station, keeping the Mog running smoothly.

The station is your home, so there’s an endless list of maintenance duties to keep it livable, from pulling weeds to painting. Sometimes there was another PT session in the late afternoon.

In our off-hours we explored the area by car or on foot or mountain bikes. The stark landscape was straight out of a John Wayne movie—literally. Just about every western star in the business, including the Duke, filmed dozens of classics out here, from True Grit to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

This was extreme country. Draw a line between the highest and lowest points in the Lower 48—the top of Mount Whitney and Badwater Basin in Death Valley, only eighty-five miles apart—and it goes almost exactly through Olancha.

I often wandered off into the Mojave alone, catching reptiles or just enjoying the solitude. The only drawback of the isolation was that the only good-looking females around had scales and claws. The desert was full of collared lizards, rattlesnakes, and desert iguanas, to name a few.

The Old Kahuna introduced me to some hot springs out on the southern end of Owens Lake. The mineral-rich water stank of sulfur—we called it “Dirty Socks”—but it was a relaxing spot to soak on cool desert nights, as long as you were prepared to spend the evening smelling a fair share of rotten eggs. It helped to breathe through your mouth.

I ended up getting along with him better than most of the others at the station. He would work for the BLM for six months and then take off for Baja California, Mexico to windsurf for the winter.

One evening we were at the springs with two other guys who went off four-wheeling in the dunes nearby. Everyone else was gone. When the Kahuna tried to start his VW, the engine wouldn’t kick over.

Shit. I was hungry, thirsty, and tired, and now we were stranded. I knew firefighters loved to screw with the new guys. What did they have planned for me out here in the middle of nowhere?

“Hungry, Snapperhead?” came a shout.

Somehow the Kahuna had produced a full kitchen, complete with a well-stocked pantry, from the back of the van.

We ate cans of Spaghetti-Os under the stars. They were the best I ever had, buckaroo style. I was learning to always be ready—and to take life as it comes.

As a seasonal wildland firefighter, you’re always aware you can be laid off at any time, or at least not rehired. It’s often due to forces beyond your control: budget changes, good or bad fire years, and so on.

And the competition is tough: every winter thousands of applicants put in for seasonal positions for the coming year. So even as I settled in in Olancha, I kept my eyes open for other opportunities.

One possibility was to apply to become a hotshot. These highly trained and experienced crews attack wildfires throughout the United States, typically in teams of twenty to twenty-two. They’re mostly employed by the Forest Service or the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs), the National Park Service, and some state and county agencies. Highly skilled and motivated, hotshot crews typically live, eat, sleep, and train together six months of the year. Due to their experience and training, they’re usually assigned to the more complex and rugged portions of fires and adapt to meet the needs of Incident Commanders in a variety of situations. They can build fire line, perform burnouts and backfires, fell trees, mop up after operations, build fences, or even assist organizations like FEMA with disaster assistance after hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods. Every hotshot takes great pride in not only being a hotshot, but also in upholding the high standards set before them from their founding members.

Hotshots are Type 1 crews. The term “Type 1” comes from the incident command system (ICS), used nationwide to coordinate emergency response. “Incidents” include everything from fire and other natural disasters to terrorist attacks and disease outbreaks. Responses are categorized based on size, from Type 5 (small) to Type 1 (very large).

Like anything official, ICS is a sea of acronyms. An incident commander (IC) usually directs an incident management team (IMT) out of an incident command post (ICP).

Just remember: Type 1 means biggest and baddest, whether you’re talking about resources like aircraft and vehicles (Type 1 are the largest) or personnel—Type 1 teams like hotshots and smokejumpers typically have the most training and experience.

Hotshots work as hard or harder than anyone on a fire. Their main job is digging the fire line—clearing away anything flammable, down to mineral soil, to stop the fire’s spread—and they’re good at it. It’s an ass-kicking job, with shifts of sixteen hours or longer followed by nights spent sleeping on the ground.

These guys are tough motherfuckers.

I didn’t find any hotshot positions open at the time. Then my captain introduced me to a friend of his who was the assistant foreman on a Forest Service helitack crew.

These crews, as you can probably guess, use helicopters to reach remote fires. The idea is to arrive quickly, while the fire is still small, and get it under control before it grows. Sometimes helitack crews rappel to the ground. The BLM, BIA, National Park Service, and Forest Service all have helitack crews, as do some counties and cities.

I had never been on a helicopter. To be honest, I’m not too fond of heights. I love roller coasters and going fast. But even climbing tall ladders with my father, with a tool bag strapped around my shoulders, would always result in some serious puckerage until my feet touched the ground again.

Still, sliding down a rope from a helicopter to fight wildfires sounded like a challenge, an honor, and a privilege, something not many people have the chance to do. I wanted to serve, and I also wanted to be part of the best the fire service had to offer.

So I applied and was offered the position. When my three-month BLM season was over, I joined a Forest Service helitack crew in Kernville, at the southern end of the Sierras.

The crew had a reputation for tough PT, so I had spent the few months before I arrived getting in good shape.

Or so I thought.

KERNVILLE WAS A GOLD Rush town on the northern tip of Lake Isabella, a reservoir formed by the Kern River.

The river, fed by Sierra snowmelt, was busy with rafters, kayakers, and fishermen from spring through fall. Boaters and families played on the lake, and the steep forested mountains of the Sequoia National Forest rose in every direction.

It was a land of monsters. Some of the giant sequoias were over three hundred feet high and thirty-five hundred years old. And according to legend, this was Bigfoot country, too.

Another local giant was called Helitack Hill. Every base or fire station has a hill for training on, complete with nickname and a long history of pain. This was Kernville’s.

I got my ass handed to me on the very first PT hike. We started with a gradual climb that turned into rocky stair steps climbing up and up and up, forever.

I was used to the rolling hills at home, not this mountain goat crap.

I kept my head down and vowed the only way I was stopping was if I choked on my own vomit, passed out, and rolled down the hill.

Somehow I made it to the end with the contents of my stomach still in place. But I never really got used to those training hikes. They could last up to two hours on a “special” day. Sometimes we had to hike the hill twice as punishment for some screwup.

One hike they called “Tablets,” because on occasion new crew members had to carry a stone that looked like it could have been one of the Ten Commandments. As the story went, when you got to the top you would be speaking in tongues.

I witnessed this transformation more than once.

I learned quickly that on this crew, it didn’t matter if you were sick or felt like crap—you still had a job to do. Otherwise you’d never hear the end of the shit.

Guys would throw up during a run or a workout and say “I’m good, let’s go.” Others would just run until they dropped, so they wouldn’t get chewed out for stopping by choice.

Our supervisor’s favorite bit of advice for quitters: “McDonald’s is hiring, and I know they could use a good worker like yourself.”

Don’t get me wrong—this was an exciting time. I was almost twenty, moving on my own through the world of wildland firefighting.

I’d gone from wondering whether I’d see my eighteenth birthday to doing one of the coolest things I could have imagined.

EVERY MORNING WE ASSEMBLED at the heliport at zero nine hundred, ready for duty. It was best to be early. The supervisor hated lateness, and he loved to assign crappy chores or extra PT to slackers.

We stood at attention, hats in hands, as one of us raised the American flag. Other stations I’d worked at just had automatic lights that turned on and off at night to illuminate the flag. I wish every fire department took the time to show the respect of actually raising the colors.

Then it was time to check our gear, do load calculations, and outfit the helicopter. All our tools and equipment went into the cargo basket, along with a collapsible water bucket.

My first year we had a Bell 206 JetRanger. When you think “helicopter,” this is probably the image that pops into your mind. It’s the kind you see hovering above city highways reporting on traffic.

The one we had was a piece of junk, and it was too small to be a good firefighting platform.

My second year we became one of the few crews on our forest to use an Aérospatiale Alouette III 316B. That ship kicked serious ass. It could hold four firefighters plus a pilot. It looked like a dragonfly, with a big bubble of forward windows and a turbine nozzle above the tail like a rocket.

And man, was it loud. New guys were warned that a few seconds near the engine without ear protection could permanently damage their hearing. It couldn’t even land at certain airports due to noise ordinances.

We trained for hours on end until we could lift off within minutes of a call coming in. Everything needed to run like clockwork. “Kind of right” isn’t good enough when even a tiny mistake can be serious, even deadly. Something as minor as a broken bungee cord could cause a rotor strike, not good.

Everyone had to know his or her exact place in the high-decibel choreography. Our superintendent (supt) and captain timed us on tasks like deploying the water bucket. If we took too long or, God forbid, did anything wrong, we’d pay for it with more hours of bucket drills, often in triple-digit temperatures.

We flew to fires across Southern California, Nevada, Montana, New Mexico, and Arizona.

The first step when we arrived at a fire was to evaluate the situation from the air. How big was it, how fast was it moving, and in what direction? What was the terrain like, and what was the weather doing? Where would be a good place to set down?

If possible, the first choice was to land the helicopter and just get off and go fight the fire. But if the ship couldn’t land safely, we would relocate to a safe landing area and then configure for rappel operations. When you rappel out of a helicopter, one end of the 250-foot rope is fastened securely inside the ship and the other hangs off to the ground. In between, it’s wrapped around a stubby metal gadget called a SkyGenie that is clipped to your harness with a locking carabiner.

More wraps around the “bone,” as we called the Genie, create more friction, meaning a slower slide. It’s the same kind of system used by search-and-rescue teams and high-rise window washers.

In the typical rappel exit, you stand on a step on the outside of the ship, then lean back until your head is lower than your feet. In that position you slide smoothly down the rope. You control your speed by how fast you feed the rope through the bone, with your brake hand, usually your right.

Our rappel trainer Rich Tyler, a helitack foreman for the BLM, was known for his attention to safety. He once refused to let the governor of Colorado fly in his helicopter until he put on a protective flight suit.

Rich taught us a different, “dynamic” style of rappelling. Picture this: you’re standing on the helicopter step with the rope hanging down below you. To get to the dangling-in-midair part of the descent, first you have to get the bone past the step. Otherwise it will catch and the weight and momentum will mash your nonbrake hand into the metal, usually followed by your face.

How do you keep this from happening? First you squat down on the step and pull your brake arm up as far as possible, to create slack in the rope below you.

Then you hop backward into the void.

If you did everything right, the slack lets the bone clear the obstacle, you catch yourself with your brake hand, and you finish the descent in peace and good health.

If you didn’t, well, as we said, “feed it or eat it.”