As a young firefighter, Jason Ramos was drawn to the mystique and skill of smokejumpers, a gruff and taciturn breed of firefighters who didn't boast about their unusual job -- they just did it.
"As soon as they joined us on the fire, the jumpers immediately took charge and got to work," writes Ramos in the book. "Their exertion left me speechless. I had never seen anyone dig in on a fire like that." Smokejumpers parachute from planes near remote forest fires to control a blaze before it grows -- this involves digging fire lines with specialized tools, hiking long distances and often working 16-hour shifts.
Ramos' new book, "Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America's Most Select Airborne Firefighters" (William Morrow, $24.99), written with journalist Julian Smith, takes us through his journey from urban firefighter to smokejumper, and intersperses stories of historical fires with the lesser-known history of smokejumping.
Currently, there are about 500 active-duty smokejumpers in the United States -- historically, almost 6,000 men and women have served in this position.
For the past 16 years, Ramos has fought fires out of the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington, where smokejumping was founded in 1939. Among other episodes, he tells of escaping a downhill-burning fire in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in 2013, and of racing behind a tree as a boulder loosed by a fire hurtled toward him near Lake Chelan in the Cascade Mountains.
For jumpers, there's a sense of accomplishment that comes with being able to withstand the worst conditions. As Ramos puts it in the book: "You can't beat the feeling of working your ass off in the face of everything Mother Nature feels like throwing at you." Here are excerpts from an interview with Ramos.
You relate several stories of close calls in the book. How do you cope with the risks of your job?
I'm a very quiet guy, I like to go in my cave and shut the door, and quiet to me is peace. Some folks on days off are hard-core, they might go run five or 10 miles, or they might go swim for hours, they might get on horseback and ride across the state.
Physical fitness is always a priority for us. There's days you just don't feel like working out but that definitely keeps your head in the game.
So you have to be at top physical fitness, but you also need a lot of curiosity about science to thrive at this job.
All firemen are motivated. I think the smokejumper program just has a lot more of that. We don't pick you, we don't have career day for smokejumpers, so you have to want it. These jumpers are very smart, some of them are high school teachers, professors, doctors. They're looking at fires, they're looking at weather, they're studying fire science, fuel moistures, botany. (Smokejumpers are selected from the corps of forest firefighters.)
You observe that smokejumpers tend to be quiet about their work. How did you feel about going on the record about it?
Through the years, we have constantly said we're just like you guys, we're just firefighters like everyone else. I think it's hurting us because we're constantly dealing with funding, base consolidation.
The jumper compared to another fireman is two different things. They're both great, but the jumper could be left alone -- not that the other firefighter can't -- but if he's stranded and left alone, if he didn't get the food and water, he'll go find some. He's very good at navigation, he's very good at different things -- true of a female or male smokejumper.
When a smokejumper asked you what you could bring to the service, you said the first thing that came to your mind was to say, "I like boxing." Have you always been drawn to risk?
I don't love heights. I'm not mountain climbing on my days off, or bungee jumping, but you know I deal with it. I was a heli-rappeller. My dad always told me, "Son, don't be a slave to your fears, you can either fight them or you can be scared of it," and I didn't like being scared of it. That's why I took it head-on as a young firefighter and said I'm just going to shoot for the top and see what I can deal with.