Del Quentin Wilber is the author of “Rawhide Down” and a reporter at Bloomberg News. His next book, “A Good Month for Murder,” on a suburban homicide squad, is to be published next year.
By Jason A. Ramos and Julian Smith
Morrow. 233 pp. $24.99
Smokejumping is insane.
There really is no other word for it. The job starts with men and women flying in a tin can of a plane over forest fires strong enough to create their own weather patterns and turbulence. Then they leap into the smoky void, often landing on rugged terrain. Once on the ground — if they’re lucky, without a sprained ankle or cracked femur — they gather their gear, throw a 100-pound pack on their backs and trudge in 100-degree heat into thick woods. Wielding chainsaws and a specialized tool called a Pulaski, they engage in hand-to-hand combat with the wildfire, an irascible and erratic foe whose temperature can reach 2,000 degrees. Oh, and when it’s all over? They throw their packs back on and trek, sometimes for miles, through dense brush to their pick-up site.
Many books have been written about firefighting, and there have been a number of excellent tomes about battling forest fires. Jason A. Ramos, a veteran smokejumper with the U.S. Forest Service, adds to this canon with his touching and fast-paced memoir, “Smokejumper.” The book examines an elite fraternity whose members he describes as “the Swiss army knives of wildland firefighting,” and it arrives at a good time: the height of what is expected to be yet another brutal fire season for the 400 or so smokejumpers with the Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Ramos tells us that his job is statistically no more dangerous than most other types of firefighting — about 30 of the nearly 6,000 men and women who have served as smokejumpers since the inception of the profession in 1939 have died in the line of duty. But it doesn’t seem that way. Danger and pain lurk around every corner: intense drilling, training injuries, air sickness, bad drops, hard landings, crashing boulders, wild animals, the grief of losing comrades and, of course, the smokejumper’s scariest enemy, fire. Why would anyone be willing to do this job?
Ramos answers that question by explaining that he yearned to serve the public and was already a local firefighter in Southern California when, as a 19-year-old, he got the chance to work on a crew of firefighters at the Bureau of Land Management. He fell in love with battling forest fires — you can’t beat the scenery — and soon won a spot on a more elite unit that deploys to blazes in helicopters. During eight seasons on what is known as a “helitack” crew, he heard a lot about smokejumpers and decided he would do anything to join their ranks.
“They were known for being highly trained, crazy fit, self-reliant, and egotistic,” he writes. “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.”
After much hard work, Ramos passed the physical tests — partly on a broken leg — and became a Forest Service smokejumper in 1999. He spends much of his book describing his unique training and his exploits in the woods, near-misses and near-death experiences, and how survival can come down to your guts and quick thinking. One of the best aspects of the job, he writes, is being self-reliant in the face of major hazards.
Ramos’s career is the backbone of the memoir, as it should be, but some of its most enjoyable and salient parts come when he is describing the nature of fire and its raw power. Co-authored by travel and science writer Julian Smith, the book often reads as if written by someone who has come to admire an adversary he has long studied — with precision and perspective, sometimes with a touch of poetry. “People compare it to a freight train or a jet engine,” he writes, describing the noise of a wildfire. “To me, it’s more of a natural sound, a massive one — part roar, part scream, mixed with waves crashing and volcanoes erupting.”
When surveying an area near where firefighters died after being overrun by flames, Ramos portrays the scene this way: “There is a surreal calm after a fire goes through. The wind and noise and the blinding light are gone, leaving behind a silent, blackened moonscape. The sun had disappeared over the rim of the canyon, but there was still a faint glow to the west. Small spot fires and embers flickered in the dimming light. It was a trip through hell’s backyard, everything either burned black or glowing.”
The book could be better organized — it hops around from personal experiences to firefighter history to a long digression on firefighting gear. A good editor might also have whacked out a few jarring gung-ho moments that take away from the overall tone of the narrative, as when Ramos explains the nature of the job: “Easy? No. Boring? Definitely not. Rewarding? Hell yeah.”
Some of his best moments are when he isn’t writing about himself, but about the job. His chapters on smokejumping’s history and the fatal Mann Gulch blaze of 1949 are among his most well-written, and his extensive experience provides valuable context in describing a recent fatal inferno — the 2013 fire in Yarnell, Ariz., that killed 19 highly trained members of a “hotshot” firefighting crew.
As Ramos notes, because of climate change, forest fires are growing more numerous and severe, and we can expect smokejumpers and other firefighters to encounter more close calls as they seek to protect life and property, especially as development increasingly encroaches on woodlands. This context makes “Smokejumper” a fun and valuable read for anyone seeking to learn more about those who are willing to risk their lives to battle such deadly infernos.