Tom Sadowski, El Cariso Hotshots, 1969-1972

Tom Sadowski
Tom Sadowski. Photo by Bill Gabbert, circa 1972.

A former El Cariso Hotshot passed away unexpectedly on June 16. Tom Sadowski was on the crew from 1969 through 1972.

Tom was unique — if you spent much time with him you would remember him. He was one of the smartest people I ever met. I learned from him. As young and dumb as I was, I had much room in my little brain for knowledge about wildland firefighting and how the world works. For a year we were roommates in the hotshot barracks up the hill from the hotshot camp in the Orange County facilities. At night there was not much to do so we talked or read. He taught me a great deal about photography and with his guidance I purchased my first 35mm camera of my own, a Minolta, after using a very old Argus that was my mom’s.

One year Tom drove with his girlfriend from his home in New England 2,500 miles to our base near Elsinore, California in a very old, army surplus jeep. He was pulled over more than once for driving too slow.

He admired well-built machinery that was made to last with heavy duty materials. We were on a fire in Wyoming and Tom had climbed on top of a large old water tender to check it out. I was taking a picture of him with my old beat-up Argus. When I pressed the shutter, I could hear and feel the guts of the camera come apart. I shook it and it rattled, which is never a good sign. I blamed Tom then for breaking my camera. I still do. I took a picture of him and he literally broke the damn camera.

Tom Sadowski
Tom Sadowski resting on a cot and a paper sleeping bag. Photo by Bill Gabbert, around 1971.

When Tom was on the crew there was no standard training curriculum in the USFS for new firefighters. At the direction of crew Superintendent Ron Campbell our crew developed a four-day basic training package which became known as the “Basic 32-hour Package”.

Tom taught us how to build a slide program of illustrations, graphics, photos, narration, and visual aids that was automatically advanced by silent cues on a taped narration.

There were no personal computers then, and we made all of our graphics using hand-drawn images, artist supplies, press-on letters, and a 35mm camera, mostly Tom’s, but I also contributed some images.

Tom Sadowski
Rick Bondar (L) and Tom Sadowski in 1972 working on what became the Basic 32-hour Fire Training for new employees.

When the training package was finished in 1972 or 1973, it required a Wollensak cassette recorder and a 35mm slide projector, but eventually was converted to VHS tapes and was used with the workbooks in many locations around the country for training new firefighters.

In 1972 Tom and I sent some of our fire photos and a proposal to National Geographic hoping they would pay us handsomely. We received a very nice declination letter from someone there named, and I have not forgotten this, “Smokey”. He explained that they liked our photos, but that they had done a wildland fire story 3-4 years before and it was too soon to do another one.

After fighting fires in Southern California Tom worked for the BLM in Alaska and worked his way up to the position of Assistant Fire Management Officer. In the 1980s I visited him at his home on a hill that had a very nice view of Anchorage. I knew he was an excellent photographer, but was surprised to see that he had a full-blown studio with fancy lighting and various backgrounds on spools that could be pulled down behind his subject.

In 2008 Tom recreated the El Cariso Hotshots logo for the commemoration of their 50th year. I’m not sure that he ever received proper credit for that project.

In his later years Tom lived in Maine and for a while he and his wife ran a women’s clothing store and later a restaurant and bar.

He and I stayed in touch by email exchanging messages every one to three years.

He wrote a regular humor column, “Just Saying”, that ran in at least one newspaper, The Free Press in Maine, where an archive of his columns is still available. If you only read one, check out a tribute to him written by Ethan Andrews, “Remembering Tom Sadowski”, which includes Tom’s own thoughts about how to write his “autobituary”. (UPDATE Dec. 26, 2021: The previous three links no longer work, but the WayBackMachine has retained some of the archives.)

Tom Sadowski
Tom Sadowski in 1975. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

We have published some of Tom’s writings on Wildfire Today. In 2013 he contributed a large section of our tribute to former El Cariso Superintendent Ron Campbell.  In 2015 he wrote about the passing of Fred Rungee, “Alaska resident, forest fire control veteran and humanitarian.”

A couple of days before his death he finished the layout and design of a book, an anthology of over 100 of his popular weekly columns written over the last 10 years. You can get a copy by sending a check for $21.95 made out to his wife, Janis Kay, and mailed to 246 Main Street, Lincolnville, Maine 04849. Shipping is free.

Tom Sadowski
Tom Sadowski. Photo by Bill Gabbert, 1971.

Below are some thoughts from former members of the El Cariso Hotshots who worked with Tom.

Hal Mortier
“Fresh out of high school and basically naive to the world, someone like Tom was an instant mentor to me.  He, an old guy in his mid-twenties, was a man of the world in my mind.  His stoic somewhat serious presence blended perfectly with his wit and wisdom.  He taught me you can have fun in even the most serious and trying of situations.  He was definitely one of the good ones!”

(From Bill: Hal has also written a book, “Life in A Nutshell by One of Its Biggest Nuts”,  available on Amazon.)

John Rudely
“Tom was initially intimidating with his shaved head and large mustache. He was jovial but quiet, not tall (his whites added a few inches) but still a man of stature, a good guy with a bit of a gruff laugh(?).”

Rick Bondar
“Probably my first recollection is of Tom driving out to SoCal in 1970 or so from Michigan in a 1945ish WWII Willys Jeep at 45-50 mph. He was as determined and stubborn as anyone, and any 2 mules I ever met. I remember him working on the fire training package for the Cleveland with those slides.

“He was a cross between Will Rogers, Andy Warhol, and Sgt. York.”

Walt (Gordon) Ehmann
“In 1970 my first Forest Service job was being a wildland firefighter on the El Cariso Hotshots on the southernmost and smallest Forest in California called the Cleveland National Forest.

“After a couple weeks of “molding” the crew, a new firefighter arrived, from Eastern Michigan University. His name was Tom Sadowski and it was fascinating how from the moment he joined the crew, he fit in, while most of the rest of us were still trying to figure out that task. Tom knew what the crew needed. It was “esprit de corps” (the common spirit existing in the members of a group and inspiring enthusiasm, devotion, and strong regard for the honor of the group). As a new worker I had seen similar things in sports teams I had belonged to, but not to the extent that was needed for this crew. I had thought that all motivation traveled down from the top, not from within the group.  Tom, right away set the examples we needed. He demonstrated the hardest effort for physical training and in the classroom atmosphere displayed clear thinking and a deep willingness to study the materials so that he understood it better than the rest of us.  That by itself would have been great, but he took the time and effort to show us the best way to do a pushup, the strategy to succeed in a long “Bump Run” and the determination we would need to successfully study fire suppression tactics and fire behavior.

“Since that time, I’ve found that often one individual on a crew can “set the standard” for everyone and thus raise the crew to a higher level of performance and efficiency.  Tom was that individual for us.  But, for him it was not just about the work. As we traveled to and from fires he would often pull out his harmonica and play some tunes or lead us in some songs.  His favorite was “I’ve got those Hot Shot Blues”. A tune he never quite finished composing, possibly to stimulate our imagination on how it could end. He made us feel good about ourselves and what we were doing.

“Tom, was a great chainsaw sawyer. Not just because he was highly physically fit to handle running a saw all shift, but because he had such a good “calculating mind” that figured out the precise cuts to get a tree to fall safely in the right direction.

“Our hotshot crew did end up with esprit de corps, but it certainly wouldn’t have happened as fast if Tom hadn’t been there to guide us.

“I left the crew the next year to go to the “Tankers”. Tom stayed on and with the persistence of several other hotshots developed the nation-wide basic firefighter package.  No small task, but again Tom didn’t think small.”

Tom Sadowski
Tom Sadowski, selfie.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

9 thoughts on “Tom Sadowski, El Cariso Hotshots, 1969-1972”

  1. A wonderful tribute to a great firefighter ! People like him was one of the reasons I loved the fire service. Hearing about folks like Tom Sadowski warms my heart and keeps me Thanking our Lord for all of you and to keep you all safe !

  2. The El Cariso Hotshots have an amazing history, but what’s more amazing are the people that have been a part of this rich history, a great many have gone on to truly contribute to the human race. I was a Forman on ECHS in the 90’s and I recall the plaques hanging in our ready room dating back to the Loop fire, I would enjoy visiting these plaques to just look at the names.
    I took your Basic 32 in 1980/81? on the Palomar Dist, I barely passed, I was 18-19 yrs old….lol……
    Bill your friend was certainly one that contributed in a great many ways and touched so many, thanks for this article.

  3. Bill:
    A fitting tribute to another Hotshot. Pretty sure that I met Tom in 1972 on a CA PNF fire that is now inside the Dixie Fire footprint. A lightning fire with a nasty uphill hike in. I remember shouting to a Boise SJ as he floated down past the outcrop I was on….he ended up having to hike quite a pull to get back up to the fire. Once lined, the fire became a bit of social event as we dry mopped and bone-yarded large fuels.

    1. I remember when Tom showed up for the ECHS in 1969 and was assigned to crew 2, where I was the squad leader. It was great to work with him and I really enjoyed his whole personality. Super physical fit and smart dude and one helll if a sawyer. One of the things I remember about that season was when the body fell off the frame of his old jeep. If I remember right he sold it “as is”. And flew home when he want back to school. Good guitar player as well. Ah the good times.

  4. Thanks, Bill and all of you for the comments about Tom. They all bring back memories for me also. In 72′ I was (in those days) a Tanker Foreman at Big Pine Flat on the Berdoo. I remember seeing Tom on fires from time to time. His appearance was unmistakable and his demeanor was engaging. RIP, Tomas!

  5. Bill,

    Great and Fitting tribute. Although I never really ran into Tom on the Fireground, your commemoration was well done. We should all acknowledge the contributions of Tom and others to the development of our USFS Fire Programs and the hotshot program. I’m sure he passed with the thought that his time on El Cariso was some of the best times of his life.

    Ron Raley

  6. Hi Bill,

    Thank you for sharing your and Tom’s experiences and accomplishments!!! Ordinary people are seldom ordinary if one gets to personally know them up close for only three years.

    I’ve only read what you do for less than 3 months and I know how much I have missed because my Utopia burned and now at 80 I plan to start again building a less than 400 sq.ft. shed after cleaning up the steel which didn’t burn. For in my Utopia I must try to be productive and not just play games.

    You are productively doing what Tom taught you!!!

    Have a good day, Jerry

  7. What a wonderful tribute to a most interesting man, Bill. Thank you for his history. As I read your tribute I couldn’t help but recall that I know Tom’s name from somewhere. Towards the end when you mentioned Lincolnville, Maine it came back. We lived in Penobscot, Maine for 18 years and I recalled his excellent Free Press articles. Ironically we just returned to Maine from western Colorado for an upcoming family memorial. Tom Sadowski’s passing was all too soon but his self obituary tips proved he was ready. RIP


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