Walt Sniegowski succumbs to coronavirus

Former Superintendent of Little Tujunga Hotshots in southern California

Walt Sneigowski
Walt Sneigowski attended the 2009 reunion of the Little Tujunga Hotshots on the Angeles National Forest in southern California. Photo by Robert Garcia.

Walt Sniegowski passed away Tuesday morning, March 31, a victim of the coronavirus.

Walt was a charter member of the Little Tujunga Hotshots when the crew was formed in 1970 on the Tujunga District of the Angeles National Forest in southern California. Rod Wrench was the Superintendent then and Walt and Gary Glotfelty were the crew foremen. Walt was promoted to Superintendent in 1974 and served in the position through 1976. He later worked in fuels management and at the Riverside Fire Lab, retiring in 1990 after 31 years of service.

He left active fire suppression in 1978 because as one former Angeles National Forest veteran said, “he had so much lung damage from years of being on the fire lines that he could no longer continue.”

A person has to wonder if his career as a firefighter made him more vulnerable to the virus.

The excellent biography of Walt below was written in 2010 by Rod Wrench around the 40th anniversary of the Little Tujunga Hotshots.


Since Little T’s inception not a more familiar face could be found than that of Walt Sniegowski. Crew members from 1970 through 1977 could stop what ever they were doing, drive up to Little T Station, roll down their window and yell ―”Hey Walt!” and from somewhere in the bowels of the Little T complex echos the gruff reply, “Hey What!”

Born and raised in a rural area of Western Massachusetts, Walt Sniegowski attended school in the town of Chicopee in the Connecticut River Valley. His family was always involved with hunting or fishing and owned several fishing camps and cabins for that purpose. If it was fresh water fishing the big rivers of Canada or fishing in the ocean Walt could be found on ocean going vessels, power boats and canoes for that purpose. He’s mother said in her diary that Walt was born with a fishing rod in his hand and spent 150 + days per year fishing or hunting right out the back door of the family home. Walt became so accurate with bow and arrow that he competed in regional field archery tournaments in the junior and intermediate categories and helped build tournament courses in Vermont and Massachusetts that still exist today. The career path for Walt was set. He would work for Fish and Game or the Forest Service. The United States Forest Service landed him.

Walt attended and graduated from the Stockbridge School at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Armed with an Associates Degree in Forest and Wildlife Management, Walt accepted a position with the Fremont National Forest in Lakeview, Oregon in 1958 & 1959 and became a “Timber Beast” timber estimating, cruising, and marking timber with a little log scaling thrown in. While learning his craft on the Fremont he became a Red Carded Smoke-chaser and made a few lightning fires and one shift on the only campaign fire in those two years. “I had not yet inhaled enough smoke to get hooked into a fire career”.

Encouraged by his District Ranger, Walt attended the University of Idaho in 1960 & 1961 and worked for the USFS experiment station at Intermountain and then in watershed management at San Dimas.

Everything appears to be on track in young Sniegowski’s life but who wants to be on track? “I know…I’ll join a Hot Shot crew.” In 1964 Walt applied for and accepted a position with the Dalton Hot Shots on the Baldy District of the Angeles National Forest. It became his spiritual awakening. “Young” Chuck Hartley was the Superintendent and Walt worked alongside three would be “Lifers” — Lorenzo Armas (Interagency Dispatch Center @ Bishop), Paul Gleason (Supt. Of the Zig Zag and Pike Hot Shot crews), and Lou Yazzie (Dalton Hot Shot Foreman and Supt.).

In 1965 Walt accepted a permanent position with the USFS as a Fire Prevention Technician at Dalton and later Rincon Station. During this time Walt gained a lot of fire experience on sector teams supervising inmates, lemon pickers, and the military. Chosen to organize and train the Y.A.C.C. Crew at Camp Fenner on the Valyermo District, Walt accumulated more fire experience but it wasn’t the same as the Hot Shot world. “I was looking for a supervisors position on a Hot Shot crew but few were available. Positions in Arizona and Idaho were offered but they were temporary and I turned them down”.

In 1970 Walt was offered a supervisory position working for Charlie Caldwell on the Redding Inter-regional Hot Shot Crew. Then lo and behold the Foreman’s position on the Little Tujunga Hot Shots was offered at the same time. “I agonized over the decision for several days, however friends like Woody Hite, Hugh Masterson, and others convinced me of the unique opportunity to start from day one with a brand new crew. Not many people get an opportunity like that and I never regretted the decision.”

Walt Sniegowski
Walt Sniegowski. Forest Service photo.

This decision must have been the right one because 8 years later, 4 years as Foreman and 4 years as Superintendent, Walt Sniegowski took into his hands the responsibility to protect, guide, and defend the lives of twenty young men every fire season. During his time with the Little Tujunga Hot Shots, not one fire shelter was deployed or one major lost time accident was recorded.

In 1978 health reasons forced a move out of primary fire fighting positions and into the start of the Angeles National Forest Fuels Program. To get things jump started Walt was stationed at Oak Grove, Then, the program eventually moved into the Supervisors Office in 1980 at Arcadia, California. In 1983 he accepted a new position with the Prescribed Fire Project at the Riverside Fire Laboratory.

In 1990, after 31 years, 6 months, and 16 days Walt Sniegowski retired from the United States Forest Service. But wait!….the telephone never stopped ringing. “Hey Walt!”….”Hey What!”…”It’s the Bureau of Indian Affairs, The Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Department of Justice requesting you put your Whites back on. What do I tell them?”…”Tell ’em I’ll be there!”

For those that don’t know, Walt celebrates and shares his life with his wife Sarita, 4 children and 10 grand children. They live a very active life in Palm Springs, California and never miss the opportunity to be active members of that community.

(end)


Walt Sniegowski
Walt Sniegowski is in the front row, second from the right; at the 2009 reunion of the LIttle Tujunga Hotshots. Photo by Robert Garcia.

Our sincere condolences go out to Walt’s family, friends, and co-workers.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Robert. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Researchers quantify the trend toward increasing autumn wildfire danger in California

Autumn Days Fire weather index above 95th percentile
Fire Weather Index in California in September, October, and November since the 1980s. From the research paper.

Researchers have quantified some of the factors that have led to an increase in southern California large wildfires during the autumn months in recent decades.

Here are examples of late season fires that occurred in southern California in 2017 and 2018:

The study defines autumn as September through November.

But their analysis goes much farther back than just three years. Among other things, they found that rising temperatures, declining snowpack, and decreasing precipitation in autumn and spring have acted to extend California’s fire season in the shoulder seasons. They also determined that climate change has already doubled the frequency of extreme fire weather days since the 1980s (see the illustration at the top of the article).

The research also found a long-term trend toward more extreme fire weather conditions occurring in both southern and northern California at the same time.

The study was conducted by Michael Goss, Daniel L. Swain, John T. Abatzoglou, Ali Sarhadi, Crystal Kolden, A. Park Williams, and Noah S. Diffenbaugh.

NIFC releases prediction for wildfire potential, April through July

Wildfire potential weather July

Today there is a bit of good news for anyone worried about how firefighters will control wildfires during the current coronavirus pandemic. The wildfire potential outlook issued by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) on March 1 predicted that the coastal areas of Central and Southern California would have above average conditions for April, but that changed in a new outlook released today. As you can see in the map above there are no areas in the United States with forecasts for above normal wildfire activity in April.

That is expected to change in May with enhanced potential in southeast Arizona and south Florida. Then in June portions of northeast California and the southern areas of Nevada and Utah will be added to the list. In July firefighters could be busy in Washington, Oregon, and northern California.

The outlook comes from the Predictive Services section at NIFC and represents the cumulative forecasts of the ten Geographic Area Predictive Services Units and the National Predictive Services Unit.

The temperature outlook from the National Weather Service for April through June predicts higher than average temperatures in the west, southwest, southeast, and east. Precipitation for the period should be normal, except drier in the northwest and more rain than normal in the east one-third of the country.

Below:

  • An excerpt from the NIFC narrative report for the next several months;
  • More of NIFC’s monthly graphical outlooks;
  • NOAA’s three-month temperature and precipitation forecasts;
  • Drought Monitor;
  • Keetch-Byram Drought Index.

“Mountain snowpack remained near to above average on the Continental Divide, along the Canadian Border, and across the Alaskan Interior. It was below average to well below average across the High Sierra, Southern Cascades, Great Basin, Sawtooth Mountains, Kenai Peninsula, and the Chugach Mountains. Snowpack melting rates will need to be monitored closely in these areas. Drought development and slight intensification was observed across California, Oregon, portions of the Great Basin, South Texas and Florida.

“Wildfire activity in April should continue to be light and focused in four areas. South Florida has been extremely dry. Fuels are receptive. Pregreenup activity may occur during warm and breezy periods along the Rocky Mountain Front as fronts pass. New Mexico begins to enter its season late in the month. In Alaska, hold over activity from the previous season can reemerge as the snowpack melts off. The potential for each in April 2020 is not expected exceed what is observed typically, except possibly in Florida.

“May is a transitional period. Fuels in southwestern areas dry, and fuels across northwestern areas enter peak greenup. The Southwest, California and Alaska begin to more fully enter fire season while other regions remain out of season. A normal transition into the Western fire season is expected. Areas of concern will be the middle elevations across much of California. In June and July, the West and Alaska enter their peak seasons. Activity across Oregon and Central through Northern California may be above normal. While overall Normal significant large fire potential is expected across most of the Southwest, some portions of the Great Basin and western portions of the Northern Rockies may experience elevated potential and activity as well. The Southwest and Alaska should transition out of fire season in July.”

Wildfire potential weather May Wildfire potential weather June Wildfire potential weather April

Temperature and precipitation outlook
Temperature and precipitation outlook for June through August, 2020.
Drought Monitor
Drought Monitor

KBDI

Seven National Park Service employees tested positive for coronavirus

One of them works at Great Smoky Mountains National Park which is in Tennessee & North Carolina

Chimney Tops 2 Fire at Great Smoky Mountains National Park
File photo of a portion of the Chimney Tops 2 Fire at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo by Bill Gabbert, June 7, 2017. During the week of March 22, 2020 one employee at the park tested positive for the coronavirus.

At least seven employees of the National Park Service have tested positive for the coronavirus, or COVID-19. During the week of March 22 the superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park said an employee there tested positive for the virus. The park on the Tennessee/North Carolina border was closed to the public on March 24, but many NPS sites remain open but have closed their visitor centers.

From the Washington Post, March 31, 2020:

In response to questions from The Washington Post, the agency said Tuesday that as of Monday, seven Park Service employees have tested positive for covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. That figure, which had not been previously reported, doesn’t include workers in the park who are not federal employees. “The NPS is working with our contractors and concessionaires to track reported cases of their employees as well,” Stephanie Roulett, a spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

The Park Service, a division of the Interior Department, will not identify where the affected employees are to protect their identities The infections came to light in a Wednesday teleconference when Park Service Director David Vela told workers, “this week, sadly, we received word of the first confirmed cases of NPS employees with covid-19.”

At Grand Canyon National Park, which drew large crowds over the weekend and remains open, park employees were informed Monday that a resident in the park’s housing complex on the South Rim has tested positive.

Roulett said no Park Service employee at Grand Canyon has been diagnosed with covid-19. Officials in Coconino County, which includes the park, have asked it to be shut down.

Our take:

These seven NPS employees could be only the tip of the iceburg since such a small segment of the population in the United States has been tested for the virus. The essential service of fighting wildland fires cannot be carried out safely without making it mandatory for all firefighters to be tested, and on a regular basis. Symptoms of the disease only show up several days after the initial infection, but during that time the virus can spread to others. Without testing, fires may have to be left to burn, or just fought with air tankers and helicopters. Dispatching untested crews and incident management teams of firefighters when it is almost certain that some are shedding the virus, is dangerous and unethical.

In 2017 over 8,000 personnel were assigned to the Thomas Fire in southern California near Ventura.

Data shows the worsening trend of California wildfires

Cumulative Acres Burned, 1979-2018, for all Fires in CaliforniaIt’s clear to most citizens of California that wildfires have become more intense over the last few years. Researchers at UC Santa Barbara and the Nature Conservancy have compiled a new dataset of damage caused by wildfires in California in areas protected by the state of California. (Some of the data does not include fires on lands protected by federal agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and the BLM). The report illustrates how the recent set of severe fires fits into a broader trend of increasing burn area and damage over the past 40 years.

The report was written by: Hanna Buechi (Environmental Market Solutions Lab, UCSB), Dick Cameron (The Nature Conservancy), Sarah Heard (The Nature Conservancy), Andrew J. Plantinga (Environmental Market Solutions Lab, UCSB), and Paige Weber (Environmental Market Solutions Lab, UCSB).

The researchers studied data on fire perimeters and estimates of damages for each fire and used the information to calculate trends involving the number and timing of fires throughout the state by time of year. They also calculated the total area burned and specifically identified the amount of wildland urban-interface burned. These are areas where houses intermingle with wildland vegetation, and are of particular concern to those studying wildfire.

Andrew Plantinga
Andrew Plantinga. UCSB photo.

“The main finding is that the recent severe fires in California — including the Thomas fire in 2017 and the Camp fire in 2018 — are part of a trend in California over the past four decades,” said Andrew Plantinga, an economics professor at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. “The trend is toward more wildfires that burn larger areas and cause more damage.”

The number of acres burned per year has not only been increasing, the report found, it is also accelerating. And this increase isn’t only during the season’s peak, from June through October. The state is also seeing a longer fire season, with more acres burned in late fall than in the past. And while greater burn areas don’t automatically translate to greater damages, the researchers found that these, too, have been on the rise.

“I expected the recent severe fires to be outliers, and they are,” said Plantinga, “but it’s also clear that they represent part of a trend toward larger and more damaging fires.”

Cumulative WUI Acres Burned in California, 1979 – 2018

The report is part of a larger effort to estimate the costs associated with a business-as-usual approach to development in California, when considering the potential impacts of climate change. The team had previously found that interventions on natural and working lands — like forests, farms and rangelands — can contribute 2.5 times the emissions reductions by 2050 as residential and commercial sectors combined.

What’s more, for every dollar spent on implementing land-use strategies, close to fifty cents would be recouped in economic benefits. And that’s without accounting for other positive impacts, the previous report states.

California Civilian and Firefighter Deaths
Civilian and Firefighter Deaths on wildfires in California that occurred on State Responsibility Area lands, 1979 – 2017.
California Estimated Value of Structure Losses
Estimated Value of Structure Losses (in 2018 dollars) for State Responsibility Area Fires, by Year, 1979 – 2018.

Acres Burned by Month and Decade for all Fires in California

California Map of Structure Losses and Fire Perimeters
Map of Structure Losses and Fire Perimeters for State Responsibility Area Fires, 1979 – 2018.

A wildfire in China has killed 19 people, including 18 firefighters

One resident also died

firefighters killed china wildfire
Screenshot of firefighters working on a wildfire near Xinhua in China. From a video produced by CTGN, an organization supported by the government of China.

A wildfire in southwest China’s Sichuan province killed 19 people on Monday, including 18 firefighters according to state news agency Xinhua. It started on a farm and pushed by strong winds spread into mountains burning 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) by Monday night. It now directly threatens major facilities in downtown Xichang, including a petroleum storage facility and four schools.

About 690,000 people live in the city, which is about 210 miles southwest of provincial capital Chengdu.

Map fire near Xichang China
Map of the fire near Xichang in China. From the Twitter account of The Paper (Pengpai News 澎湃新闻)

In the tweet below, firefighters appear to be in a precarious location:

Our sincere condolences go out to the families, friends, and coworkers of the deceased.