Chapter 3 - 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 3

I WORKED EIGHT SEASONS on the helitack crew. We were a tight bunch, upholding the Kernville reputation with pride.

When we weren’t working or training, we still spent a lot of time together, playing sand volleyball and swimming in the lake. On high-water years you could swim right off the transit airport ramp.

After years of working with the same crew, I could recognize someone from a sneeze or fart in the dark or a silhouette digging line.

Eventually I moved up to lead crew member. Once for a few months, I filled in as captain for a short time, a position of greater responsibility and independence.

I started working more fires as incident commander. The higher IC rating you get, the more responsibilities you have.

Yet the longer I worked as a wildland firefighter, the more I heard about another, even more exclusive group: smokejumpers.

The first time I heard the term, in a National Geographic documentary, I was in my teens. This was the late 1980s, the A-Team and Rambo years, and everything about them fit that mold: the small group, the intense training, the lethal dangers they faced daily.

As I moved through the ranks of the firefighting world, I picked up more info, all of it secondhand at first. Jumpers had the mystique of the elite, for better and worse. They were known for being highly trained, crazy fit, self-reliant, and egotistic.

You heard them called “arrogant bastards” a lot.

That was the stereotype, at least. The same people who called the hotshots the marines of wildland firefighting and likened helitack crews to the air force sometimes compared smokejumpers to special operations forces.

Firefighting and the military are two completely different worlds, of course. Smokejumpers were the cream of the crop, though. They were usually the most experienced and skilled firefighters on the scene. It was hard to find anyone who challenged that.

I eventually learned the roots of the stereotype firsthand: part jealousy, part resentment, and part truth. Being a jumper takes a certain kind of personality. You have to be independent and tough, both physically and mentally. To do the job, it’s not enough to just survive. You have to be able to thrive in an environment that can kill you six ways before breakfast.

At Kernville all I knew was that smokejumpers were fascinating. Then I started crossing paths with them on fires around the West. They were rare, almost like a different breed. There were only fewer than 500 on duty any given season, and they tended to keep to themselves. Jumpers were usually older than your average hotshot or helitack crew member, at least in their late twenties if not thirties or forties, sometime even their fifties.

Having a jumper on a fire was a little like having a rock star in a restaurant: you couldn’t help but be curious what all the fuss was about. Some people actually wanted to become smokejumpers, but even more just wanted to interact with them.

On a fire in Winnemucca, Nevada, I walked over to a BLM jumper who was busy stuffing gear into a bag.

“What’s up?” I said. He just nodded curtly and kept packing. What a dickhead, I thought. But damn, his gear was more exotic looking than anything we had. And his food looked much better than our shitty old MREs.

That night I was walking through town when I looked through the window of a bar and saw the same guy inside. There was something different about the way he held himself, standing alone with his drink like some old-time gunslinger. Regardless of the brush-off earlier that day, I saw confidence, not arrogance.

Whatever it meant, smokejumpers had an aura that was impossible to ignore. I wanted a piece of that.

Who wouldn’t?

AROUND THAT TIME, WE were on a fire in the Sequoia National Forest near the Kernville helibase. The blaze had spread to a few acres, and it looked like we were going to need some help to put it out.

I overheard a radio call from our forest’s fuels management officer (FMO), asking our superintendent’s thoughts on having a load of jumpers brought in. Finally I’d get a chance to work with these guys.

“We don’t need any,” my supt said curtly. “We can handle it.”

The radio was silent for a few seconds.

“Not negotiable,” the FMO replied. He was a former jumper out of Missoula and he knew what they could do. “You will be getting a load of jumpers at this time. Do you copy?”

My supt looked like he had bitten on a bad tooth. Orders were orders, however.

A few hours later we heard the faint sound of a fixed-wing plane approaching. We watched as the jump ship circled over the fire. Someone tossed out long paper streamers that fluttered to the ground, showing which way the wind was blowing.

I was so stoked I could hardly stand still. There were huge boulders and hundred-foot trees everywhere, and the wind was starting to pick up. Where the hell were they going to land?

Parachutes blossomed in pairs overhead. The first two jumpers set down near us. They must have radioed back that it wasn’t a good landing spot, because the rest landed in a meadow below us. Every touchdown was perfect.

As soon as they joined us on the fire, the jumpers immediately took charge and got to work. Their exertion left me speechless. I had never seen anyone dig in on a fire like that, hotshots or helitack. It looked like that load of eight jumpers could handle anything.

My helitack supervisor knew I was interested in smokejumpers. To his credit, he must have said something to someone, because the jumper in charge (JIC) found me as we were mopping up.

“So I hear you’re interested in the program,” he said.

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, what can you offer us, Mr. Ramos?” I felt like a deer in the headlights. Was this a trick question? I’d been fighting fires since I was seventeen, and I had an unusually wide range of experience: Unimog, helitack, engines at Riverside. Not many people my age could say they’ve ridden a fire engine tailboard and rappelled out of an Alouette.

But all that vanished from my head in front of the JIC. He asked about my education and any other skills I had outside of fighting fire.

“I like boxing,” I blurted. The second the words left my mouth I felt like a fool. Fighting? That’s my talent?

“You might need it,” he said and walked away.

The brief exchange showed me that becoming a smokejumper wasn’t a crazy fantasy. It was something that could actually happen—if I could make the cut.

First I would have to get in the best shape of my life. Jumpers didn’t just have to leap out of planes, climb into and out of giant trees, and dig line in the middle of nowhere. They also have to pack out everything they bring in with them.

Every ounce. On foot.

One day at the base I asked our FMO, the former Missoula jumper, for advice. He nodded toward Helitack Hill, which had already almost killed me more than once.

“When you’re able to do that carrying 110 pounds,” he said, “that should get you close for rookie training.”

Close? For a second I thought he was kidding. I was five foot six and only weighed a little over 125 pounds soaking wet. But I quickly realized he was dead serious.

The first time I tried to heft a pack that heavy, I was in the exercise room at my parents’ house. I loaded it with sandbags and square plastic water containers called cubies, which we used for drinking water on a fire. Each cubie held five gallons, a little over 40 pounds. I crammed in anything else I could to bring the total weight to just over 110 pounds.

I sat down on the floor, put my arms in the shoulder straps and tried to stand up. Instead I slowly tilted to one side, pack and all.

My father poked his head in the door and found me sideways on the floor, legs flailing like a drunk turtle.

“Need some help, son?” he said with a grin.

It took a few tries to figure out how to put on a pack that weighed almost as much as I did. You put it on sitting down—that part I got right—but then you have to maneuver onto your hands and knees. From there you can stand up, slowly and carefully. If there’s a log or a rock or something to give you a little extra leverage, all the better.

Like a lot of smokejumper training, nobody tells you this; you have to work it out for yourself.

(Another thing you learn through experience: take very good care of the straps on your pack-out bags. If you blow out one of those in the middle of nowhere, you’re screwed.)

I began training with the giant pack almost every day, alone and with friends. I started with quarter-mile hikes through the grapefruit groves near my parents’ house in Lake Elsinore. Then half a mile, a mile, two. Then hills.

Back at Kernville my superintendent gave me extra time for training. I’m still not sure whether he was humoring me or setting me up to fail. Either way I could eventually make it up and down Helitack Hill with a fully loaded pack without crippling myself.

My knees can still feel it.

FOR THREE YEARS I trained like a madman and applied for every smokejumper rookie class I could. Rumors started to float around: Ramos will never make it. He’s overtraining. He’s too old. (I was twenty-five, near the rumored cutoff age for rookie smokejumpers, although in truth rookies have been hired into their fifties.)

I kept at it. Early one morning in the spring of 1999, during one of my return stints at Riverside, my mother knocked on my bedroom door. A smokejumper was on the phone.

Dammit, I thought. Another “interest call” that won’t go anywhere. I’d already done this a dozen times. It was late in the hiring season, and I assumed I’d already missed the year’s selection anyway.

I picked up the phone. It was Mr. Button, training foreman for the North Cascades Smokejumper Base (NCSB) in Winthrop, Washington, the birthplace of smokejumping.

He asked a number of questions I had answered before. Did I really think I was ready for the job? Was I in good shape?

“Tell me again your firefighting experience,” he said.

“Going on ten years, sir.”

“Ten seasons?”

“No sir, ten years. I work summers with the Forest Service and winters here in Riverside County.”

“Well, why haven’t you gotten hired yet?” It sounded like he was joking.

“I guess they don’t like R-5 folks too much,” I said. The Forest Service’s Region 5 covered all of California, where overhead were notorious sticklers for regulations, and the fire conditions were among the most extreme in the country. So people tended to assume you were on the tight-assed, arrogant end of the spectrum.

I kept glancing at the clock as we chatted. I had an appointment in half an hour.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said finally. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I have to get going.”

“Well, do you want this job or not?” he said.

“What?” I must have misheard him.

“I’m calling to offer you a job, Mr. Ramos.”

My heart skipped a beat. I had wanted this so badly, for so long, that for a second I was speechless.

“What? Y-yes. Yes, sir!”

Later that morning I went out for my normal training run humming with energy. Rookie training started in June, just a few months away. I wanted to be able to run a sub-six-minute mile in hilly terrain by the time I reported.

I pushed it extra hard, and I kept pushing myself as the days went on. Over the next few weeks a dull ache took hold in my left leg. I ignored it at first—I hate going to the doctor—but my brother finally convinced me to make an appointment.

In the doctor’s office, my stomach clenched as an X-ray tech hung a ghostly image of my leg on the light board. He pointed to a faint line running down my tibia: a nice, clean hairline fracture.

Maybe I wasn’t going to be joining the smokejumpers’ historic ranks after all.