In Julian Smith's first book, Crossing The Heart of Africa, published in 2009, he (literally) followed the footsteps of Ewart Grogan, a distinguished Englishman and late 19th century adventurer who bushwacked 4,500 miles from Sudan to South Africa. And, in his most recent book, Smokejumper, released in mid-July, Smith shadows another, more contemporary adventurer, Jason Ramos, a veteran forest firefighter.
An adventure, science, and travel writer for top shelf publications like Outside and Smithsonian, Smith is an award-winning writer. For this recent book, Smith serves as a companion writer, helping Ramos narrate and recount his nearly three decades as a smokejumper, one of the storied and elite members of forest fighters who parachute into the heart of forest fires.
Smith was first introduced to Ramos after his first book was published. His editor suggested that Smith follow up with another adventure story, this one about forest firefighters, and connected Smith with Ramos. Smith points out that his editor has done that sort of writer-matchmaking before like, oh, some book about a sniper that became a movie starring Bradley Cooper.
Over the course of two years, Smith and Ramos talked on the phone like long lost brothers and met a half dozen times in person; sometimes in Portland, but more often in the North Cascades where Ramos is based. "It was mostly drawing out his stories," explains Smith, "and organizing them into a coherent narrative, and then asking endless follow-up detail questions."
The Source recently caught up with Smith.
Source Weekly: One of the challenges you spoke about during the research is that Ramos is somewhat unflappable, which is great when fighting a fire, but not so illustrative when trying to describe drama and fear.
Julian Smith: I think in some subcultures like the military and military-esque service jobs—police, firefighters, etc.—there is a strong cultural aversion to tooting your own horn about what you do. There's a pressure to not sound self-aggrandizing, never admit to fear or self-doubt, never say what a badass you are, to just let your work speak for itself.
This especially applies to small, insular groups like smokejumpers. Although it's interesting how it seems like every [Navy] SEAL on earth is writing a book now. Jumpers do incredible and essential work, but going around advertising that fact is highly discouraged. That's probably why there's really only one other first-person book by a jumper, which ruffled a lot of feathers.
At the same time, a certain amount of tooting is essential to writing a book that grabs people; it's the old rule of thumb that the worse or crazier the experience, the better the story. So that was a delicate balance to strike sometimes. Plus, Jason is naturally a very humble person. So luckily for me he also has a long list of amazing experiences to dig into.
SW: Ramos is roughly the same age as you. Did you find yourself comparing your life with his? Wondering if you have had enough adventures?
JS: Yeah, it's funny, we're almost exactly the same age, but our lives and career paths have been so radically different, which made delving into his especially interesting for me. I admire what he does—I'm kind of in awe of it, actually—but I can't imagine ever doing a job that's so physically difficult and frankly under-appreciated, let alone for as long as he has. Plus, I've had a few of own adventures, so I'm happy.
SW: Were there some stories that Ramos told you that seemed too crazy or too dangerous to believe?
JS: You mean beyond jumping out of a plane to go to work? Every time he talked about being next to a massive wildfire that could veer in any direction at any time, it's potential nightmare fuel. Nothing unbelievable, more like, "What the hell did you do next?"
SW: Like so many jobs, it seems as if technology has advanced to a point that much of the work could be accomplished more safely and efficiently by machines. It would seem as if drones or robots could do some of the same work that smokejumpers historically have done. How is that statement not correct?
JS: So far drones can't dig firelines or find a tiny smoldering fire buried somewhere in a Tolkien forest, let alone put it out. In a sense, smokejumping is very retro work, little changed in over 80 years. But it's also going to remain something you can only do in person for a long time.
UPCOMING FIRE-RELATED EVENTS
Sisters Meet a Real Hero
KID STUFF—All ages. Meet and learn from real heroes who don't wear capes but can teach a lot about courage, safety, and health—firefighters! 10:30 am. Sisters Public Library, 110 N Cedar St., Sisters. Free.
Storm King Mountain Fire Full Circle & Beyond
PRESENTATION—Storm King Mountain Fire survivor Kim Lightley shares stories from the 1994 fire that took the lives of 14 firefighters. 6–7:30 pm. Downtown Bend Public Library, 601 NW Wall St. Free.
Know Fire: Prometheus Got Burned
MYTH—Retired COCC professor Terry Krueger unpacks the story of Prometheus, the metaphor of fire in mythology and what it means to us today. Noon–1 pm. Downtown Bend Public Library, 601 NW Wall St. Free.
Gypsy Fire Bellydance
DANCE—Returning to the Taj Palace Restaurant for our First Friday performances. Come savor the exotic flavors of India, and enjoy some mesmerizing, energetic, and always improvised tribal bellydance! Shows are family-friendly and occurred every First Friday! 6:45 pm. Taj Palace Restaurant, 917 NW Wall St. Free.
August 18 & 19
Know Fire: Baldy's BBQ Secrets
FOOD—Learn to harness fire to create delicious meals! Brian Dioguardi, aka Baldy of Baldy's BBQ, joins us to talk about tips and tricks that will take your grilling and BBQ-ing to the next level. He'll also talk about common mistakes to avoid along the way. Don't miss this tasty event! 6–7 pm. August 18, Redmond Public Library, 827 SW Deschutes Ave., Redmond. August 19, Downtown Bend Public Library, 601 NW Wall St. Free.
Living with Fire
PRESENTATION—Living at the foot of the Cascade Mountains means we have access to a wealth of outdoor recreation—from lakes and rivers to forest hikes and camping. But living in or at the edge of a forest also means we're particularly vulnerable to wildfire. Join the Sunriver Fire Department at the Sunriver Library for a look at what it takes to be fire ready in Central Oregon. 1–2 pm. Sunriver Area Public Library, 56855 Venture Ln., Sunriver. Free.
August 29 & 30
Know Fire: Living In a Fire Environment
PRESENTATION—Alison Green, program coordinator for Project Wildfire, talks about recent forest fire disasters and how to best defend your home against wild fires. 2–3 pm. August 29, Redmond Public Library, 827 SW Deschutes Ave., Redmond. August 30, Downtown Bend Public Library, 601 NW Wall St. Free.