I absolutely loved this book. Smokejumper by Jason A. Ramos and Julian Smith is a whip fast, fun, and fascinating read. It is also, at times, deeply sad. As a firefighter myself, I’ve always been intrigued by smokejumpers–the fittest and most elite of wildland firefighters. Not only do they parachute out of planes to get to fires that no one else can reach, they hike across unbelievably rough terrain, often where no trails exist, carrying over a hundred pounds of gear and equipment on their backs. Fewer than 500 of them are active at any time in the US, which means they don’t have much backup and if they get in trouble, there is no quick or easy exit. In other words, they’re the badasses of wildland firefighting. Highly independent. Tough. Individualistic.
“No matter how competent and conscientious you are on a fire, sometimes bad shit just happens, even to the best of us.”
There are three threads to Smokejumper: FF Ramos’ own story (how a city boy from L.A. became a remote wilderness firefighter); a history of smokejumping (absolutely fascinating in and of itself); and a concise overview of three of our deadliest wildland fires including the Yarnell Hill Fire which killed 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots in 2013. Ramos assesses these fires and covers lessons learned while never blaming the victims and recognizing how it is in their very nature to push the limits and dive into the thick of things.
“No one wants to be benched. You want to be in the shit, to be able to say ‘I was there.’ That’s human, the lure of action. It’s like dreaming about making the winning touchdown or beating the buzzer with a fadeaway three-pointer. This game, though, can cost you your life, and that’s the fine line: to dance, or to step back and take the next song.”
Each thread of Smokejumper could be it’s own book and some of them are. Norman Maclean wrote about the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire in Young Men and Fire and his son John N. Maclean (who wrote the foreward to Smokejumper) recounts the Storm King Mountain tragedy that took the lives of fourteen smokejumpers and hot shots (including 4 women) in Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire.
The history of smokejumping reads like it’s own adventure novel depicting Japanese bombs, forgotten battalions, and covert military operations. Each story is unbelievable. Ramos tells us about the Japanese “balloon bombs” launched to cross the Pacific and deploy over the US during WWII; The Triple Nickles, an all-black Parachute Infantry Battalion retrained as smokejumpers because so many American smokejumpers were fighting the war; and the fifty or so smokejumpers performing secret paramilitary missions for the CIA in Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia during the Vietnam war.
The only issue I had with this book was that I wanted more. More history. More training. More Ramos. More about the personalities of the jumpers themselves. (And the women? What the hell are they like?) Ramos shies away from describing any of his cohorts and yet I imagine there are some serious characters amongst this group. Also, like a typical firefighter, he remains resolutely silent on the emotional/personal toll of the job, such as witnessing the burned remains of fallen firefighters, losing people in a such a tight-knit community, and living away from family and friends for months at a time.
“In a firestorm nothing is safe:
sand turns to glass,
metal runs like water,
wood and human beings
vanish into ash.”
It is a sad and painful reality than when wildland fires claim lives they often take entire crews. The strongest and the bravest. And yet these fires are getting larger and more deadly every year while the very people who fight them become ever more besieged by political obstacles. Fortunately, there will always be men and women willing to fight fires despite intense conditions, little pay, and overwhelming danger. No one is better at this than smokejumpers and I applaud Jason Ramos for finally telling their story and giving the rest of us a tantalizing glimpse into their world.