Into the fire

Jason Ramos: Smokejumper

The strenuous, burning and devoted life of one aerial firefighter, out of the plane and into the fire.

The wall of flame was moving fast across the forest. It was 200 yards away and the noise was building. The fire growls before it devours, as if a pride of lions roared before a feast. The embers flickered through the air, lighting up spot fires ahead of the giant wall of heat leaving ashes in its wake.

An out-of-control wildfire sounds like a freight train, most survivors say, expelling molten steam at infernal pressures. These men fighting it believe that once you hear that sound, it’s over. The expanding roar ripping out your ear drums and then becomes the least of your worries.

“In a firestorm, nothing is safe: sand turns to glass, metal runs like water, wood and human beings vanish into ash.” – Jason Ramos

Oxygen levels drop. The attack on the senses only worsens as the heat rises and your throat tightens and dries out. Every heat wave seems to spawn three more.

A Risk Worth Taking

Jason Ramos opens his eyes. It’s 3:00am and the alarm clock was ringing. He turns it off and gets out of bed. Thoughts of that firestorm won’t let him get enough rest these days.

His career in firefighting started at the age of 17 before being accepted into the elite team 16 years ago. He is set and knows the reason and drive that led him to the life of a smokejumper. “I’m motivated by duty and service,” he said in an interview with a travel magazine, “I can only speak for what motivates me, not other jumpers. What I find most rewarding is giving 150 percent to save natural resources and lives.”

Essentially, a smokejumper is a firefighter who is transported aerially into remote parts of the country to fight fires and pull off rescue missions. The job is waiting until something reaches critical level. They spend their down time with physical training. It’s an utter numbing repetition of training. Then the call comes, and they take to the air and jump out of the frying pan and into the fire… literally.

The Making of a Smokejumper

In the 1980’s, Ramos was growing up in West Covina, California, and then to Lake Elsinore, California. An average life for an above average man. He didn’t have a plan. Nearing graduation, Ramos found himself feeling uncertain about his prospects in the academics and wasn’t planning to go to college.

“I remember various car accidents and fires in my local area and seeing my friends from high school involved with these emergencies. At the time, Riverside County had one of the largest volunteer firefighter programs in Southern California. In 1989, I applied to become a volunteer firefighter and the rest was history,” says Jason Ramos.

Growing in the ranks, he eventually led his own rescue firefighter squad before going for a revered position as a smokejumper. Fewer than 6,000 individuals have ever successfully completed training to become a smokejumper. A 5’ 6” and 120-pound stature hindered nothing, he was one of them. He had a hunger for it and would not be stopped in 1993, when he officially became an aerial-delivered firefighter… A smokejumper.

Decades later, Ramos regrets little having followed his passion. The specialized and unique parts of fire service interested him the most. There are only 400 smokejumpers in the entire United States, and maybe only half of those are actively jumping fires on a regular basis.

Every wildland firefighter has their own reasons for doing the job. For myself, I always wanted to be part of something bigger and to serve to make a difference,” said Ramos.

Smokejumper Versus the World

Thanks to global warming, wildland firefighters and elite crews called into battle forest fires will have no shortage of work in years to come. These out of control blazes will only increase, applying further strain on the men and women on the front lines working 16 hour long shifts for 21 days straight. All the while greatly exerting themselves both physically and mentally.

Yeah, you fell asleep standing up. You’re tired. I’ve done that — multiple times,” he said. These fires are increasing in size, volume and intensity.

The area burned across the western parts of the country will double by the end of the century, according to the National Wildlife Federation. Unchecked forestry, record breaking drought conditions and a few other factors have combined to create a situation that threatens countless lives.

Ramos is based at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington. He works in the same base where the smokejumpers were created in 1939. Recently, Ramos has started his own business, Product Research Gear. The company checks the gear used by emergency rescue personnel. It ensures that safety and compliance are enforced, keeping any malfunction from putting a compatriot in danger.

Jason Ramos continues saving lives and serving his country. Keeping his word, he never ceases, “to serve, to make a difference.” – Jason Ramos