Retired La Grande hotshot dies

It is with profound sadness that I write to announce the passing of a beloved community staple, coworker, friend, partner and father, Mark Gomez, 67.

Mark Gomez
Mark Anthony Gomez, November 19, 1956 — March 19, 2024

He passed away after a brief, yet fierce, battle with a respiratory illness. A light to all those who knew him, Mark “GoGo” Gomez was fittingly born in Los Alamos, New Mexico, known as the land of Enchantment, on Nov. 19, 1956. The middle child of Hilario and Emily Gomez, he learned from an early age how to become the glue that holds people together through laughter, storytelling and love. His early years were spent hunting and fishing in New Mexico, with some time spent in San Diego, where he honed his love of surfing and baseball. Both locations molded my father into the avid outdoorsman he was for the rest of his life.

After graduating from Pojoaque High School in 1974, this same love for the outdoors led him and his first wife, Wendy Friedman, to La Grande, Oregon, nestled deep among the forests and rivers he called home for the rest of his life. After two beautiful children, Sari and Lance, Wendy and my father parted ways. He settled into his careers at Blue Mountain Sports and on the Union/La Grande Interagency Hot Shot crews, where he forged his lifelong friendships and met my mother, Trish Wallace, his forever partner.

The next 37 years for them were filled with adventure, from backpacking across Mexico and mountain biking through Moab to skiing the mountains of the Northwest, hiking in the Eagle Cap Wilderness and firefighting during the summers on the La Grande and Union interagency crews. From fire to fisheries and recreation to engineering, my dad got to live out his passions in his work alongside his La Grande Ranger District family up until his retirement in 2019.

If I had to describe my dad in one word, it would be “fire.” Fire, for the job he cherished and the coworkers-turned-friends-turned family. Fire for his passion of fishing, exploring, and all things outdoors that fueled his career and lifestyle. Fire, for the one he lit under you when he saw your potential and pushed you toward it. Fire, because though sometimes it will burn you, it will always keep you warm and help you find your way.

In his last days, Dad’s doctor told us that “love cannot be divided, it only can multiply.”

Anyone who was lucky enough to know my dad knows this to be true. To know him is to feel infinite bounds of love. Whether he was yelling at you or for you, he was always in your corner, and I like to think we were all better people for being a part of his life. I dream he is at peace now, fishing and exploring on the great river of life. When the wind blows hard through the trees or thunder rolls in the distance, know that is my dad, sharing a bit of himself with you from above.

After many years apart, he joins his mother and father, and his oldest and youngest brothers in the afterlife. He is survived by his spouse, Trish; his sister, Cheryl; his brother, Jeff; his nieces and nephews, who adore him; his children, Sari, Lance and Logan; and his grandchildren, Tuko and Tule.

A celebration of his life will take place on May 11 starting at 1 p.m. at the Hot Lake RV Park at 65182 Hot Lake Lane, La Grande. Bring a potluck side dish and some stories. Hawaiian shirts are most certainly encouraged. Online condolences may be made to the family at lovelandfuneralchapel.com

Water system on the Tonto needs pre-season fire help

A longstanding wildfire safety collaboration between the Tonto National Forest and Arizona’s Gila County officials needs updating. The county began collaborating with the USFS and local fire districts back in 2006 when it installed 14 water tanks, bladders, and storage systems in helicopter-accessible areas on the forest. The intent, according to a recent Gila County Board of Supervisors meeting, was to put fires out as soon as they were detected in the Rim Country area near Payson. The water sites were positioned where helicopter turnaround time would be less than five minutes.

2019 Woodbury Fire
The Woodbury Fire, Superstition Wilderness on the Tonto, photo (c)2019 Daisy Mountain Fire Department

But those water systems are now falling apart. Gila County Emergency Services Coordinator Carl Melford told the Board of Supervisors that the average lifespan of a water bladder is five to seven years, and many of the sites have old bladders with deteriorating water storage tanks.

Melford hopes to use a $609,000 congressionally directed earmark grant through the USFS to fix the deteriorating system. The funds would have to be matched from Gila County for a total of $1.2 million.

“This funding provides the opportunity for the evaluation and purchase of new water tank storage systems to replace the dilapidated tanks and old bladders and to hire a qualified contractor to transport and install 56 tanks of 5000-gallon capacity at the 14 locations,” Melford said in his proposal to the board. “This will increase the capability of fire suppression efforts, which is vital to the protection of Gila County residents’ life and property in areas prone to wildfires.”

East Verde River trail on the Tonto National Forest
East Verde River trail on the Tonto National Forest — photo ©2023 Joey Cavaleri

Bids for the project are due by May 14, just in time for what used to be the start of Arizona’s wildfire season from late April to the beginning of monsoon in June. That “season,” however, looks to mostly be a thing of the past as wildfires burn 100 days more than they did 50 years ago.

“We really don’t say we have a ‘fire season’ because we can have activity throughout the state year-round,” Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management spokesperson Tiffany Davila told the Arizona Republic last year. “We can see fire activity increase during the end of April, beginning of May.”

The Tonto National Forest’s most recent wildfire, the Valentine Fire, started on August 16 last year, nearly caused evacuations, and burned nearly 10,000 acres.

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Timeline of response to 2023 Lahaina wildfires

First responders showed up within minutes of the first reports to dispatch, on the huge wildfire last summer that nearly destroyed Lahaina, the historic Hawaiian town on the island of Maui. The first emergency calls came in to dispatch at 2:55 p.m. on August 8, according to the new report by the State Attorney General. Firefighters spotted smoke at 2:57 p.m., arrived at the fire at 3:00 p.m., and were joined by law enforcement who said the first building caught fire at 3:05 p.m.
The new report indicated that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has a separate investigation underway into the origin and the cause of the fire.
MAUI fire progression map
Maui fire progression map

According to the REUTERS report, first responders battled a storm of embers sailing downslope ahead of unusually high winds. The fires destroyed most of Lahaina, the former capital of the Hawaiian kingdom, killing over 100 people.

The Associated Press compiled numerous 911 calls that dispatchers on the island received the next day, and the dispatchers’ answers were the same each time; police and fire responders couldn’t help find missing people because they were still trying to get people to safety, still working hotspots and responding to fires.
FSRI Fire Progression Data Map Animation
The New York Times reported that fatalities from the Maui fires surpassed that of even the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California, and made the Maui fires the deadliest since the Cloquet inferno in Minnesota killed hundreds back in 1918.
The island’s officials were pleading with tourists from the U.S. mainland and elsewhere to cancel vacation plans and spare locals and emergency responders the drain on scarce resources, and later encouraged tourists to come back to the island that depends heavily on visitors and tourism dollars. Hotels and other lodging options on Maui scrambled to shelter evacuees and the suddenly homeless; that struggle on the island is far from over.The state attorney general’s office has more maps online.

Forestry student receives Truman scholarship

Jaiden Stansberry, a senior in the forestry program at the University of Montana in Missoula, is one of just 60 Truman Scholars this year — chosen from 709 candidates. Stansberry is in the Davidson Honors College and is  also completing a Fire Science and Management minor. Stansberry’s application focused on wildland fire.

She is studying fire science and management at UM and works summers as a wildland firefighter in Yosemite National Park, where she spent much of her childhood. Because of her father’s work there, Stansberry grew up at Yosemite — she calls herself a park brat and says her experience as a firefighter gave her an edge in the scholarship competition. The application process requires a policy proposal, and her focus was recruitment and retention of leaders in fire management — by drawing more seasonal workers into the NPS apprenticeship program.

University of Montana Forestry School
University of Montana Forestry School

Grad students in the Truman program are selected for their leadership potential, commitment to a career in government or the nonprofit sector, and demonstrated academic excellence.

Jaiden Stansberry

Growing up in the National Park Service encouraged a dedication to natural resources for Jaiden. She is currently studying forestry with a minor in fire sciences and management and has worked as a wildland firefighter for the National Park Service for the past two years. Her experience inspired her to focus on prescribed fire implementation and challenges. She intends to pursue an MS in natural resources stewardship with a concentration in forest sciences to expand her knowledge of the influence of policy in forest management. Jaiden is particularly interested in designing prescribed fire programs for the National Park Service to support natural disturbances on a landscape while mitigating fuel to protect property and life. She hopes to encourage collaborative efforts between National Parks and local tribes to perform burning in areas with cultural significance. In her free time, Jaiden can be found flyfishing the Blackfoot River and traveling to different National Parks.

The Truman Scholars receive $30,000 for graduate studies, leadership training, career counseling, and internship opportunities in  federal agencies. Stansberry said her experience at the University of Montana has been just what she’d hoped college would be. “It’s been a phenomenal time here, and I’m really glad this is the school I ended up going to,” she said.

She’ll work this summer as a firefighter at Glacier National Park, then head to Washington DC for her internship after her first year of grad school focused on wildland fire policy. We certainly congratulate Jaiden and wish her the best; you can the full story feature by Abigail Lauten-Scrivner of the UM News Service [HERE], and there’s more about the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation [HERE]. Brief bios of the 2024 Truman Scholars are posted [HERE] and it’s a mighty impressive read.

 ~ Thanks and a tip of the hardhat to Steve for this. 

 

Humans are by far the main cause of wildfires

Every year in the U.S., billions of dollars are spent on wildfire suppression and risk reduction. The five federal fire agencies — Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Fish & Wildlife Service — spent a combined $4.4 billion (2021) and $3.5 billion (2022) in wildfire suppression alone, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). The USFS announced in February that it would be investing nearly $500 million more in its “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis” 10-year strategy focusing on 21 priority landscapes across the West.

Despite the numerous projects and strategies billions in taxpayer monies have funded, one thing hasn’t changed over the past decade: Humans are still the main cause of wildfires — and numbers have worsened since 2014.

Air quality publication HouseFresh analyzed NIFC data from 2023 and ranked the causes of wildfires by number of occurrences. Of the recorded fires, 72.6 percent were directly caused by humans.

The bulk of last year’s wildfires were caused by debris burning and open burning, resulting in 1,302 wildfires. That is an increase from the 1,120 fires started by debris and open burning in 2022. Equipment and vehicle use, power generation/transmission/distribution, and arson were the next listed causes of wildfires in 2023 at 507, 390, and 364 respectively.

“The balance between human and natural fires has almost reversed since 2014, although the trend has not been smooth,” the HouseFresh report said. “The proportion of human-caused wildfires grew significantly in 2015, 2016 and 2020, peaking at 77.2 percent in 2020.”

How People Start Wildfires
This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License ::: creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0

To no one’s surprise, California leads the nation in number of acres burned by wildfires. The state totaled 344,878 acres burned, followed by Alaska at 295,105 acres and Arizona at 218,286 acres. Arizona led the nation, however, in the biggest increase in acres from 147,553 acres in 2022 to 218,286 acres in 2023. Southeast Fairbanks County in Alaska was the leading county in acres burned in 2023 at 141,399 acres.

“Alaska suffered the second-most land damage in 2023, despite the largest annual reduction in acres — down 2,818,744 acres from 3,113,849 in the previous, record-breaking year,” the report says. “Unfortunately, many places where fires burn are hard to reach; at the same time, permafrost and surface fuels make Alaska’s wildfires particularly pollutive.”

~ The full report’s posted on the HouseFresh website.

Every year in the U.S., billions of dollars are spent on wildfire suppression and risk reduction. The five federal fire agencies — Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Fish & Wildlife Service — spent a combined $4.4 billion (2021) and $3.5 billion (2022) in wildfire suppression alone, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). The USFS announced in February that it would be investing nearly $500 million more in its “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis” 10-year strategy focusing on 21 priority landscapes across the West.

Calling all Alaska Hotshots!

ALASKA FIRE SERVICE CREWS ARE HOSTING A REUNION

CELEBRATING 40 YEARS OF TYPE 1 STATUS!
May 10-11, 2024
Alaska Hotshots Reunion
Alaska Hotshots Reunion

We are celebrating the 40 years of Type 1 status, but we recognize that the Alaska crews existed long before then — and that the program was built up over time. It’s an important part of our shared history!

Alaska 'Shots ReunionWe’d love to see anyone who was on the crews before, during, and after we were around, and anybody associated with AFS in any capacity since the beginning of time.

Horvath Pond – Chena River Lakes Flood Plain
(RV and tent camping on site)
64.71756964969562, -147.25810594061997

Alaska 'Shots Reunion
How much?
Our priority is attendance — so there will be no cost to attend.
We will, however, sell t·shirts, hats, and other stuff to help cover costs.

Alaska Hotshot Reunion 2024

► ► RSVP HERE ◀︎ ◀︎

*This is not an official BLM event, and the BLM is not endorsing or sanctioning the event.