What It’s Like to Plunge Into the Heart of a Forest Fire

A smokejumper explains the risks and rewards and cautions that fires will become even more frequent and bigger.

For most of us jumping into a fire would be the stuff of nightmares. But for Jason Ramos, author of Smokejumper: A Memoir By One of America’s Most Select Airborne Firefighters it’s a job and way of life.

Every summer, when fire season begins, he heads for the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington to do battle with the flames. A series of ‘megafires’ in recent years has made his summers especially busy and dangerous.  

Talking from his home in Washington State, he explains why the quality of the gear he carries is so crucial and why he is working with the private sector to improve it; why smokejumpers have to be good at sewing; and how altered patterns of habitation and a lack of effective forest management are fueling ever bigger fires.

The book opens with you standing by the open door of a plane about to make your first jump. Take us back to that moment and the emotions you felt.

It was 1999 and I was 26 years old. You do all the training and the next thing you know you, you get your briefing, they tell you to suit up, and you’re in the air. I was in the middle of the plane. My rookie brothers and sisters, as we call them, exit the plane and then it’s your turn. You get to the door and that’s where the training kicks in. You get anywhere from four to six weeks of training.

Now it’s muscle memory. You jump out that door. It goes from loud to very quiet. Then you hit the ground and go “Wow!”

A lot of people reading this book are going to conclude that you are crazy to do this job. What inspired you to become a smokejumper?

[Laughs] If I had half a cent for every time someone said that I’d be a rich man! It’s definitely a different job. There are multiple occupations throughout the world. Some are a little bit more risky, some are less so. I became a fireman at the age of 17 and liked it.

As the years went on, pushing more and more, I always wanted to work at that highest level for fire guys. I heard about smoke jumpers and I’m sure at that time I said to myself, “Those guys are crazy.” [Laughs]

You didn’t grow up in the mountains. Tell us a bit about your early life and how it led you to smokejumping.

I grew up in L.A. County, which is a very different place. You don’t walk through the forest. It’s more of a concrete jungle. Then my parents moved to Riverside County, where there were coyotes and rabbits and hawks and mountain lions. That was interesting to me and from Riverside County I went north and eventually to Washington State.

You are now stationed at the smoke jumper’s base in Winthrop, Washington, in the North Cascades. Explain its historical importance to the occupation.

Winthrop is the birthplace of smokejumping. The first jumps were made during the fall of 1939. One of the pioneers was a guy called Francis Lufkin. From there it grew to what we have today, which is nine smokejumper bases in the US.

What makes a good smokejumper?

That’s a very good question! Someone that doesn’t want to give up. It sounds a little bit corny, but these folks are very motivated. I never distinguish between a female and a male jumper. They’re just smokejumpers to me. I don’t care what they look like, what color they are, how tall they are, how short they are, their education. They’re a smokejumper.

They passed some serious training to get there and they are very unique human beings. They are highly motivated. “Can’t” just doesn’t compute. They’re there to fix something: it could be a fire or a rescue mission, and they’re going to do everything to complete that mission. That’s why I wanted to be part of this. They’re go-getters.

Is this an all-male fraternity? Are there women smokejumpers?

They’re human beings. Anyone can fill out the application and if you pass the physical you can be invited to try out for the program.

At our base right now we have one woman jumping, but it never crosses my mind what gender she is. She’s a smokejumper. There are not a lot of smokejumpers, period, in the program. This year it should be under 500.

Every year it comes up and down as folks take other job opportunities. Some

are in the military so they go back, some are high school teachers or professors, so we have very dynamic numbers during the fire season. I would say there about ten percent of them are women.

I was interested to learn that smokejumping was one of the first racially integrated government jobs in the U.S. Tell us about the Triple Nickles.

The Triple Nickles were an African-American unit in the army. As smokejumpers got drafted for WWII, it left the bases open. The Triple Nickels covered us. In the fire world, we call it “cover”. As the jumpers left to go fight for the country, the Triple Nickles stayed here and fought for our country, intercepting Japanese hot air balloons that were being sent over to the U.S. to drop incendiary devices and put the fires out. They did an exceptional job. Those guys were real smokejumpers.

There have been some terrible tragedies for smokejumpers. Take us inside the Yarnell fire in Arizona and what lessons it taught.

Every year during fire season bad things are going to happen. I remember a good friend of mine said, “Jason, we don’t fight fire, man, we try to corral her.”

I understand what he meant, because it’s a force we can’t defeat. When she’s mad—we always call her “She”—she will take everything in her path. There is no mercy. And the Yarnell incident was one of those times.

I was not there. But I got to hear some inside briefings about the investigation. These guys got caught in a bad area and they lost. We have a creed, “it’s life and property.” Sometimes we get that mixed up. Sometimes I’m out there on a mission and I put property first. You’ve got to really kick yourself in the butt and say, “Hey, it’s life, [then] property.” Do good and protect someone’s property, but first and foremost someone’s life.

Describe what it feels like to be inside a major forest fire.

The sound starts soft then gets to the point where things are screaming. Some people compare it to a freight train or a jet. I don’t think it sounds like any of that. It sounds like what hell would sound like. When it’s up and moving, it’s pure awe. Some people say, “It gives me goosebumps” or “Makes my hair stand up.” Most of all, it makes me aware of hope–that I can come home tonight.

There have been a series of megafires in the American West in recent years. Is this a trend? And how has it affected your job?

If you look back at history there were million-acre fires even before 1900. And we are starting to see big fires again. Our forests are getting more overgrown, so there is more stuff on the ground to burn. More people live out in the woods now and if they are careless they can cause a wildfire. If we don’t take care of our forests, we’re going to see more fires. Mother Nature is taking hold, too. We have beetle kill—and all these different things creating fuel for fire, which equates to bigger fires.

You’re a self-confessed “gear head.” Tell us about some of the new technologies you are developing with your company Product Research Gear and why equipment is so important?

[Laughs] I’m definitely a geek now. We don’t get paid to do this stuff. We do it because we have a passion to make stuff better. When we test something, we take it to the limit. Back when I started as a fireman, the gear was OK. But as I got older, I started noticing things, like how the stitching and textiles would burn or not last. I said, “God, can’t there be anything better?” You always get the word, “It can’t be done.” So I started a business  and we’ve made change. Major manufacturers will say, “It can’t be done.” I’m a jumper, so I laugh when I hear that! And we did it. For instance, we designed a new fire helmet, which they said couldn’t be done.

We are also working on fire shelters. If we’re going to be out there on the fire line, we need a shelter that will work above temperatures of 2,000 degrees. You’ve cooked potatoes over a campfire, right? You wrap them in tin foil. Our shelters look like tin foil except they pop open into a tent so we can get in there when there is a bad situation. The shelters we have now are not that high a standard, though. They are great for certain things. But it’s not the best tool for the worst-case scenario.

We’re not here to point fingers at anyone. We just want to be on the winning team and make something happen. We’re constantly dealing with red tape, politics and what I call ‘fluff.’ So we’re looking to collaborate with private companies. We don’t need the government to go out and low-bid a project. We’re trying to find a solution that will give everyone a fighting chance out there. That’s the mission. I’ll pay for it out of my pocket if I have to.

I was amused to discover that despite this being what you could call a very “macho” job, you guys spend a lot of time sewing!

[Laughs] Correct. It just makes you giggle. The guys are very good. You scratch something on a piece of paper, and they will produce it. Their skills are amazing! I can sew, too, but there are a lot of guys better than me. We make our own parachute bags. We call them PC bags. It’s what holds our fire gear and goes on our backs like a backpack. We make all our jumpsuits.

Right now, the guys are repairing parachutes and canopies. Or they might be making harnesses. It’s really impressive. But we don’t have enough sewing machines and we live in old Quonset huts. We don’t have heat in our lofts, so in the winter we move all the sewing machines into the mess hall, so the guys can stay warm in minus degrees and finish sewing the equipment. We’re not complaining, but we do need support to show people what we can do.

You write that “fire touches something deep and hardwired in our souls.” What do you mean by that?

Fire is in all of us. We need it to survive; we have to work with it. It’s an amazing thing. Next time you’re at a campfire look at people’s expressions as they stare into the fire. Most people get quiet and just stare. That’s a good fire. We [deal with] bad fire, which takes lives and homes and souls.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter.

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