Veteran smokejumper gives a unique glimpse into the world of airborne firefighting
written by Charyn Pfeuffer | photography by Jason A. Ramos
I met Jason A. Ramos last October, on the last day of the 2016 smokejumper season, at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base, the birthplace of smokejumping. I’d long revered these brave men and women who serve in what Ramos calls “the Major League of fire service.” Imagine parachuting 1,500 feet into a fire in less than sixty seconds with 100+ pounds of supplies, the primary goal to choke it out with little more than hand tools.
In his book, Smokejumper: A Memoir By One of America’s Most Select Airborne Firefighters, Ramos gives a glimpse into the world of airborne firefighters. Headed into his twenty-eighth season as a smokejumper, he’s one of fewer than 500 smokejumpers on duty in the United States and one of fewer than 6,000 since 1939.
Can you tell me a little bit about how your book came to be? It seems pretty serendipitous.
I’d never written a book, never planned to write a book. I was on duty, got a phone call, and I didn’t answer it for days—it was during my work time. Days later, I asked my second half who Harper something was and they said, “Harper Collins?” I said, “Yeah, I think that’s it.” I listened to the message, then called a good friend and adviser. He said, “Someone’s playing a joke on you—Harper Collins doesn’t call people.” He said, “Call them back immediately,” so I did and they said they’d like to start a relationship. So we started a relationship and months later, at the end of the summer, I finally officially took the deal.
What was it like working with ghostwriter Julian Smith?
It’s kind of like going to buy a car—you’ve got to find someone you like. I wanted someone kind of 180 degrees different than me. I didn’t want someone who was just going to agree with me, but I wanted it to be right. There was this moment, I think it was when we nailed down the first chapter. I don’t even have the words for it. It floored me. You read it, and you’re just emotional—you’re like, “Holy crap, this is real.” And that was the weirdest thing, reading something about you. It’s you in your story, but it doesn’t really sink in yet. He did a great job, and I couldn’t have done it without him and he couldn’t have done it without me. We definitely had some hard days, and I give him the highest credit.
What do you want readers to take away from your book?
I was told in high school that I wouldn’t amount to nothing. As a kid, those are pretty big words coming from a principal and teachers. I wrote the book to show kids that are in a bad place and doing bad things, there is a way out. I prove it. I don’t have a degree. I didn’t go to college. But I have passion, and if you have that, you can succeed. Don’t stop and don’t quit—crawl. Literally crawl. Just keep going. I was told I couldn’t have a business, I couldn’t have a book. I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t do that. What I want the most is for someone to read my book and to have that responsibility for your actions and to do things right.
How can people learn more about smokejumping?
People can tour the North Cascades Smokejumper Base in Winthrop, Washington during the summer months, seven days a week. It doesn’t matter if the guy is off duty, he will give you a tour of the base. The base sees between 2,000 to 3,000 visitors each summer.