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.

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.

PG&E to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter for fatalities in Camp Fire

84 people were killed in the northern California fire in 2018

The Camp Fire, November 8, 2018
The Camp Fire, November 8, 2018 about four hours after it started. NASA (Joshua Stevens) – Landsat 8.

In a rather startling development, Pacific Gas & Electricity is expected to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter for the 84 people that were killed during the Camp Fire that burned through Paradise, California November 8, 2018. The fire also burned 154,000 acres and destroyed more than 18,000 structures.

Below is an excerpt from an article at NBC news:

PG&E has agreed to plead guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one felony count of unlawfully causing a fire after it was blamed for the Camp Fire in Northern California, the state’s deadliest in history.

The fire, which burned through the Sierra Nevada foothills for half a month in late 2018, burning through three towns, was sparked by Pacific Gas and Electric Company equipment, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which identified ignition points in Butte County.

The settlement, which the utility reached with the Butte County District Attorney’s Office on March 17, was filed in the Superior Court of California in the county and made public Monday morning by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

It must still be approved by the Butte County Superior Court, as well as the federal bankruptcy court overseeing PG&E’s case. In January of 2019, PG&E filed for chapter 11 protection to, in part, set up a “Fire Victim Trust.”

A PG&E spokesman told NBC News that the utility has reached settlements with victims from 2015, 2017 and 2018 wildfires, totaling about $25.5 billion.

Last May the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection released results of their investigation which determined that two points of ignition were found that were caused by failures of PG&E electrical transmission lines. One of the towers was 99 years old.

The company is expected to plead guilty in court on April 24, a date that was moved back due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

Escaped prescribed fire burns 20 acres near Elsinore, CA

The spread of the South Main Fire was stopped by 286 firefighters and 4 aircraft

South Main Fire Cleveland National Forest map
The arrow on the 3-D map shows the approximate location of the South Main Fire on the Cleveland National Forest March 6, 2020.

A prescribed fire on the Cleveland National Forest in southern California escaped the intended project area on March 6 and burned an additional 20 acres. It occurred near the South Main Divide between Lakeland Village and a residential community west of the road.

The spread of the South Main Fire was stopped by 286 firefighters, 3 helicopters, and at least one S-2T air tanker.

South Main Fire Cleveland National Forest helicopter
A CAL FIRE UH1 helicopter drops water on the South Main Fire on the Cleveland National Forest March 6, 2020. USFS photo.
South Main Fire Cleveland National Forest
Smoke from the South Main Fire as seen March 6 from an HPWREN camera on Santiago Peak.

February brought record low precipitation in parts of California

February Precipitation record low California map

From Daniel Swain of @WeatherWest:

“Well, it’s official: most of California just experienced driest February on record. Locations like Ukiah, Sacramento, Redding, & San Francisco recorded no rain *at all* during a month at peak of the rainy season. Wildfire concerns are elevated this week.”

Some prescribed fires are more challenging than others

Prescribed fire fuel break Angeles National Forest
Prescribed fire on the Clear Creek fuel break in the Angeles National Forest. ANF photo.

Firefighters on the Angeles National Forest are using prescribed fire on the Clear Creek fuel break north of Los Angeles that separates the Arroyo Seco from the Big Tujunga drainages.

“It helps to protect some of the largest communication sites anywhere, some of LA’s drinking water storage, and major communities,” said Robert Garcia, Fire Chief on the Angeles National Forest. “It is also on some of the toughest ground we have on the ANF making initial attack very difficult. The adjacent slopes are unfortunately known from such incidents as Woodwardia, Bryant and more recently the origins of the 2009 Station Fire.”

When I worked on the Laguna and El Cariso Hotshots nearby on the Cleveland NF, to us the ANF was infamous for its extremely steep slopes, which are evident in these photos.

Prescribed fire fuel break Angeles National Forest
Prescribed fire on the Clear Creek fuel break in the Angeles National Forest. ANF photo.
Prescribed fire fuel break Angeles National Forest
Prescribed fire on the Clear Creek fuel break in the Angeles National Forest. ANF photo.
Prescribed fire fuel break Angeles National Forest
Prescribed fire on the Clear Creek fuel break in the Angeles National Forest. ANF photo.
map Prescribed fire fuel break Angeles National Forest
Clear Creek fuel break in the Angeles National Forest. ANF.

In most other locations super-steep slopes are not a serious obstacle while conducting prescribed fires, as in the example below.

Prescribed fire at Chickasaw National Recreation Area
Prescribed fire at Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Oklahoma by M. Fidler, February, 2013.