Chapter 2 - 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 2

THE COOL MORNINGS MADE the rappel rope stiff and hard to feed through the bone.

There was another problem. The protocol for all helitack rappelers was to use the same number of wraps on the bone—two—for everyone, regardless of their weight.

The motivation was supposedly for safety; a large person who didn’t have enough wraps could take an unplanned express descent. But the single standard made it more challenging for people on the lighter end of the scale.

Like me.

On one particular morning I made my hop off the step fine. I didn’t have enough slack, though, and the rope didn’t feed through the bone fast enough.

With my full weight on the rope, the bone caught my left index finger against the step. It felt like someone had smacked my hand with a sledgehammer.

The pain didn’t hit for a few seconds. By the time I worked the bone over the step, though, I could feel something warm and wet running down my forearm.

I figured I had just lost a finger.

This particular rappel involved doing an emergency tie-off, where you stop your descent so you get both hands free. I finished the procedure, although it took a little longer than usual.

By the time I reached the ground, a small pool of blood had gathered in the elbow of my fire shirt. I took my glove off. The finger looked like a split grape. Thankfully it was still connected.

At the hospital, the small-town doctors did the best they could to sew my fingertip back together. It never looked or felt quite right again. The next day I was back on duty with a gigantic white bandage and no idea how I was going to get my gloves on.

As far as I know, no helitack crew uses a dynamic-type rappel anymore.

RICH TYLER WAS A quiet, patient instructor, with a wife and a ten-month-old son. Just a few weeks after our training ended, he was dispatched to a fire on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. He was eventually joined by four dozen other firefighters.

On the afternoon of July 6, 1994, my twenty-second birthday, the fire blew up. Half the people on the mountain ended up running uphill for their lives in a futile race against the flames. Rich and thirteen others never made it home.

I had been taught that death was a part of being a firefighter. I had attended a few funerals already.

Still, hearing what happened was a punch in the gut. It just didn’t compute. How could this happen to someone who was so experienced and competent? As a firefighter you hear over and over how, if you do everything right and follow all the safety guidelines, you’ll be fine.

It was sobering. No matter how competent and conscientious you are on a fire, sometimes bad shit just happens, even to the best of us.

My supervisor knew we all liked Rich. The next day on my way to the office, I was checking the cactus garden (part of our daily chores was to make sure the cactus garden was spotless), and he saw me and asked if I was okay.

“Yeah, I’m good,” I said.

THE JOB DIDN’T OFFER time off to grieve. I had to process all this even as I practiced the skills Rich himself had taught me.

Rappelling to the ground was only the first step. As soon as we touched down and took off our rappel gear, we got busy cutting a fire line.

Fire doesn’t just burn out in the open; it can hide under the surface in forest duff and other organic material. Embers can smolder for hours, even days, then burst back to life.

Exposing naked mineral soil is the only way to control or stop a fire from spreading on the ground. (Through the air is another story.) Depending on the terrain and fuel type, a fire line can be anywhere from a foot or two wide to ten feet or more.

At the head of the line, teams of sawyers clear away anything flammable with chain saws. Swampers stand by to pull the cut material out of the way so the sawyers can concentrate on cutting.

Then come the diggers with hand tools, scraping and digging.

Over the years, wildland firefighters have developed an arsenal of specialized tools for grubbing line in different conditions.

A few you’d recognize, like shovels and axes. Some are vaguely familiar, like the hoe on steroids called a rhino.

Others look like the bastard offspring of two or three tools, combined for brutal efficiency. A McLeod is a sharp hoe backed by a sturdy rake. A pulaski, probably the most iconic wildfire tool, is an ax with a thick horizontal blade on its back side.

Any of our firefighting tools would make a Viking marauder proud.

There’s a constant influx of new tools as companies try to come up with new and innovative ideas, but they’re often more flash than function. (I’ve found the ones that really work are designed by actual Type 1 firefighters.) The old standbys have earned that status for a reason.

I had no idea how proficient I’d eventually become with a pulaski. You can use it left- or right-handed to chop branches, dig holes, or scrape sod. With a little practice it throws pretty well, too, although that technique isn’t covered in standard training. For digging line or fighting off an enraged Sasquatch, I’d reach for a pulaski.

To get a feel for cutting line, imagine a combination of logging and ditch-digging, in a steep hillside forest, under the California sun. You’re wearing heavy leather boots and gloves and a hard plastic helmet. Your pants and long-sleeved shirt are made out of Nomex, a synthetic fabric designed for flame resistance (at the time not the best in breathability or comfort).

Then add the heat and smoke of a forest fire practically licking at your elbow.

Easy? No. Boring? Definitely not.

Rewarding? Hell yeah.

You can’t beat the feeling of working your ass off in the face of everything Mother Nature feels like throwing at you.

Whether you accomplished your goals or just made some small progress toward them, the fact that you’re still breathing, hopefully not freezing your balls off, and have some food in your stomach means you had a normal day in our book. And normal is good.

As our crew worked the fire, the helicopter could fetch water in the Bambi Bucket, a bright orange collapsible container that hung from a longline under the ship. Skilled pilots can scoop water right out of a river, lake, reservoir, beaver pond—heck, a swimming pool if they have to—and dump it on a fire with pinpoint accuracy.

If you were working under a high tree canopy that limited the pilot’s visibility, you might have to help tender the bucket in by hand from the ground until it was exactly where it needed to be.

Helicopters can also start controlled burns—fires lit deliberately to reduce fuels—with a helitorch, which is basically a flamethrower dangling under the ship, controlled by the pilot using an electric switch.

At the helibase we had to mix the helitorch fuel with a thickening agent, alumagel, stirring up fifty-five-gallon batches with hand paddles. It was like making napalm ice cream in a barrel, while wearing a respirator, amid all the heat and noise of a helicopter base.

Not the best job, especially when the mixmaster stuck his hand in and said you had the mix wrong and had to start over.

As soon as the pilot took off with one barrel we were already working on the next one.

Another way to light fires on purpose was to use “ping-pong balls,” which are great for burning off ground fuels without doing too much damage to the overstory.

These small plastic spheres are filled with potassium permanganate and then injected with a squirt of ethylene glycol, creating a little chemical firebomb with a twenty- or thirty-second delay.

They’re shot out of a dispenser attached to the ship. It’s like a paintball gun for pyromaniacs.

WHEN WE FINISHED A mission on the ground the helicopter would come pick us up, although we often had to spend the night out first.

In those days Kernville was known as a tough, well-respected crew. Our supervisor didn’t cut us any slack. We didn’t carry luxuries like tents for overnights. On cold nights the only heat came from the fire itself.

Sometimes we’d sleep on slopes so steep we had to dig a trench just to keep from rolling down the hill. I learned to bury coals or rocks heated in the fire to make a warm patch of dirt to lie on. If I got the dirt-to-coal ratio right, everything was good. If I wasn’t careful, I’d end up burning my ass.

On multiday assignments we might be based out of a fire camp for up to a few weeks with dozens or hundreds or even thousands of firefighters. Some camps had mess halls, medical tents—and if you got lucky, showers and a phone.

A bad fire season in California could keep us busy for months. When it was really going off, we might get multiple missions in one day. Even when the skies were clear everywhere else, thunder cells would build over the Kern River and dump lightning into the dry vegetation. We’d dig line in the heavy brush and trees, with flaming pinecones rolling down all around us, starting more spot fires.

Flying in a helicopter is never dull—especially when you’re roaring a few hundred feet over a glowing line of flames crawling across a hillside, leaving nothing but charred land and smoke in its wake.

Turbulence is normal when you’re flying low through unstable air. Thunderstorms, fires, and mountain topography create strong and unpredictable winds. But sometimes it goes well beyond that.

Once on the way back to base, we hit a downdraft over Walker Basin, a windy valley south of Lake Isabella. I was sitting in the back, behind the superintendent. Suddenly all I could see through the windshield was ground. Everything in the ship floated up, weightless, our bodies straining against the seat belts.

Huh, I thought. I guess this is it. It’s strange how your mind works in moments like that. Everyone was calm, including the pilot. He pulled out of the sudden dive with hardly a grunt of surprise.

The feeling of sudden, abrupt weightlessness eventually became just another part of the job.

Another time we were flying into a fire on the Tule Indian Reservation, twenty-five miles northwest of Kernville, when I looked out the window and saw a cloud of dust and flying extra debris.

“Emergency traffic, 522 is down, emergency traffic,” squawked the radio. The voice betrayed no emotion, but we knew the order to clear the airwaves of everything but emergency communications meant something bad had happened.

Helicopter 522, another Alouette, had just crashed. Everyone knew the pilot, a vet whose combat experience in Vietnam made him fun to fly with. As we raced to help, everyone was wondering the same thing: Was there anyone else on board?

It looked like a longline had swung up and hit his tail rotor during bucket operations. That meant the pilot was alone at the controls.

By some miracle he survived.

IN BETWEEN SEASONS AT Kernville, I came home to volunteer with the Riverside County Fire Department and to help train new recruits.

One of my hairiest brushes with danger to that point in my career happened when I was back home. On a fire at Lake Perris State Park, just east of Riverside, I was assigned to a state engine that had room for one more. I didn’t know any of the crew on board.

I was sitting in the open rear of the cab with another firefighter. As we drove along slowly, flames crawled closer and the temperature rose—so far, more or less a normal day on the job.

Then the fire gradually surrounded the engine. When I saw the other crew member grab the engine protection line, a short hose used to protect the engine itself, I knew things were starting to get interesting.

Like all fire engines with a rear open cab, we were equipped with fire curtains, heat-resistant barriers you can close to protect yourself from radiant heat and high temperatures. In an engine, this is the last tool you have to keep the heat off you, like your shower curtain keeps water off the bathroom floor.

I was thinking about grabbing the curtains when the engineer finally drove us out of there.

This seemed pretty hairy to me at the time. I was a seasoned rookie firefighter with nearly seven years of fighting fire under my belt. As the years went on, though, an episode like this would become not even worth mentioning at the end of the day. Just another part of the job.

ON A SEPTEMBER AFTERNOON my fourth season at Kernville, a small plane went down in Walker Basin and started a brush fire. There was at least one survivor, who had managed to make it out and call for help.

Everything seemed to conspire against us getting there on time. First we had to battle the local afternoon headwind flying down the canyon. Then, even though we had the Bambi Bucket hooked up in record time, a problem with the cable cost us valuable seconds.

I could see the smoke a few miles out and felt a maddening helplessness that we couldn’t go any faster. It’s terrible knowing there might be people trapped and you can’t do anything until you get there.

We finally arrived at the crash site, on a sloping hillside covered in chaparral, dry grass, and a few scattered trees. The plane was a single-engine Piper 28 that had crashed during a flying lesson. One of the four people on board had been thrown out of the plane. He had tried to pull his companions, two men and a woman, to safety, but the wreckage exploded in flames before he could. Badly burned, he had made it to the nearest road and flagged down a car.

The wreckage was still smoldering. A crew of Forest Service firefighters was already on scene. It was clearly too late to help anyone.

Up close I could see odd, ragged scratches on the body of the plane, just outside one of the broken windows. It took a second before it hit me what they were.

One of the trapped passengers had survived the impact and tried to claw his or her way out.

A familiar odor lingered in the air.

“What the hell is that smell?” one of the local firefighters said, half joking.

I had to fight the urge to not walk over there and smack the helmet off his head for his lack of respect for the victims. He was obviously just a rookie and didn’t know better.

I did. When I was eighteen, I was on a Riverside call to a residence just down the street from my house. Another volunteer was already there and together we went inside. The house was filled with smoke and a distinct smell I couldn’t place. Not burning plastic or wood—more like cooked meat.

We found a woman inside, hysterical and deep in shock but unhurt. It took a few minutes to piece together what had happened.

The woman had told her husband she was leaving him. He went out to the garage and doused himself with gasoline. Then he lit himself on fire, walked into the house, and collapsed in the living room in front of her.

A trail of charred pieces marked his final route.

Standing on the hillside next to the smoldering fuselage, I recognized that smell.

There was no way we could have helped the people in the plane. I still felt like I had somehow failed them, though. It made me furious to think that they had survived the crash only to die in the flames, a far worse way to go.

That night back in Kernville I jerked awake in the darkness to find myself standing, drenched in sweat. I had no idea where I was or how I got there.

I looked around in a daze. Kitchen on the left, living room on the right. This was still the house I was living in at the time. I was down the hallway from the bedroom and it was the middle of the night. Through the windows, the faint lights of other homes flickered down on the valley floor.

I couldn’t move. A deep, cold darkness like I’d never known seemed to freeze me from the inside out.

Slowly, feeling and movement seeped back into my body. I went back to bed and lay wide awake in the darkness for a bit wondering what the fuck just happened.

“You okay?” my girlfriend at the time said.

“Yeah, I’m okay.” I took a long drink from the jug of cold water she always put by the bed for me.

Everyone deals with shitty missions differently. Some people shrug them off. Some can’t handle it and quit. For others, including me, a gradual numbness seemed to build up.

You found yourself focusing on the technical details, the immediate parts you can actually control, as a way of insulating yourself against the emotional impact of the terrible things we saw almost every day.

Then out of nowhere it could hit you like a sack of wet potatoes, as my dad would say. A complete mental and emotional overload. For a few seconds it seemed like time stopped. But it would always start up again.

I must have fallen back asleep, because the next thing I knew it was morning.

Time to get up and go to work.