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.


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.

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.

Incident Management Teams are receiving COVID-19 assignments

Area Command, Type 1, Type 2, and NIMO teams

Coronavirus Response graphic

At least eight interagency Incident Management Teams have been deployed to work on issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. These are the teams that usually are assigned on wildfires, hurricanes, and other natural disasters, but can adapt to manage many different kinds of planned or unplanned incidents, organized under the Incident Command System.

As we reported earlier, three Area Command Teams were given assignments on March 17 to develop protocols and wildfire response plans for maintaining dispatching, initial attack, and extended attack capability. The plan was for the personnel to work remotely, rather than assemble in one location. The teams will be working on plans for the following geographic areas:

  • AC Team 1, Tim Sexton: Southern, Great Basin, & Northern Rockies.
  • AC Team 2, Joe Stutler: Rocky Mountains, Northwest, & Alaska.
  • AC Team 3, Scott Jalbert: Southwest, and both Northern and Southern California.

Two National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) teams have also received assignments:

Two IMTs were activated in the Northwest Geographic Area:

  • Type 1 NW Team 2, Rob Allen, has been assigned to Washington State Emergency Operations Center, providing complexity analysis, risk assessments and short/long-term planning guidance.
  • Type 2 NW Team 13 , Brian Gales, has been assigned to the Spokane Regional Health District, Washington, assisting with strategic planning and building capacity.

There are reports that other teams have been assigned in Oregon from the State Fire Marshal’s office and the Department of Forestry.

Many National Parks remain open during COVID-19 pandemic

One NPS employee resigned when it became clear his park would not close

Grand Canyon Lodge North Rim
Guests at the Grand Canyon Lodge North Rim, May 16, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Decisions about which National Park Service sites close during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic are made on a case-by-case basis by officials in Washington.

The National Park Service is not maintaining a public list of which of the 419 sites, monuments, and parks are open or closed, but the non-profit website National Parks Traveler is attempting to keep track. As of March 26 the site had identified about three dozen that were closed or were about to close, including Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Pearl Harbor, Rocky Mountain, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, and Yosemite. That list may only include about a third of those that are closed.

Most of the NPS visitor centers are closed, but parks that are still open while entrance fees are suspended can still attract visitors to trails and viewpoints. Unless a park is physically closed by gates, park law enforcement officers still have to patrol in order to avoid the mayhem that occurred when employees were prevented from working during the government shutdown last year.

The Superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park sent a request up the chain of command that the park be closed. It was approved in the Regional Office, but so far not at the Washington office.

The Washington Post has an article by Darryl Fears about the issue. He tells the story of an employee who resigned when it became clear his park would not close. Here is an excerpt:

“Two days before he cursed a supervisor and quit the National Park Service job he loved, Dustin Stone arrived to work in a foul mood. A decision by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to keep national park sites open despite the coronavirus outbreak left him angry and in disbelief.

“The virus hasn’t reached Skagway, a tiny town on the Alaskan panhandle where Stone lives and worked at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park [map]. But if it does, he said, it could be a disaster. “I’ve lived here year-round through eight flu seasons, and I’ve seen how quickly an infection can spread,” he said. “When one of us gets sick, most of us get sick.” There’s no full-time doctor and no hospital in Skagway. A single community health clinic has a registered nurse and assistants.

“When it became clear that Klondike Gold Rush would not be among the few sites allowed to close, and would continue hiring seasonal workers from the Lower 48 to come to Skagway for the spring and summer rush of visitors, Stone snapped. He barked a few choice words and stormed out.

“As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prepared to issue new guidance Thursday about how visitors should behave at more than 300 park sites that remain open, park employees expressed anger and fears about the spread of infection.”

Zion Visitors coronavirus park

Appropriations in coronavirus bill would affect firefighters

The U.S. Forest Service will receive $70.8 million

U.S. Capitol building
The U.S. Capitol building. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The coronavirus legislation, which passed late Wednesday night in the Senate 96 to zero, would send checks to more than 100 million Americans, establish loan programs for businesses, supplement unemployment insurance programs, and boost spending for hospitals. The House is expected to pass it either Friday or Saturday.

Of the $2.2 trillion allocated in the legislation, $70.8 in the four bullet points below is set aside for the U.S. Forest Service. The bill specifies that the funds shall be allocated at the discretion of the Chief of the Forest Service. The page numbers refer to a copy of the legislation at Politico.com that passed the Senate.

  • P. 715: $3.0 M, to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, including for the reestablishment of abandoned or failed experiments associated with employee restrictions due to the coronavirus outbreak.
  • P. 716: $34.0 M, for the U.S. Forest Service to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, including for cleaning and disinfecting of public recreation amenities and for personal protective equipment and baseline health testing for first responders.
  • P. 717: $26.8 M, for ‘‘Capital Improvement and Maintenance’’, to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, including for janitorial services.
  • P. 717: $7.0 M, for ‘‘Wildland Fire Management’’, to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, including for personal protective equipment and baseline health testing for first responders.

The four items above are very similar to the language in the version of the bill that failed to pass the Senate on Sunday and Monday.

There is no specific allocation of funds for wildland fire programs in the Department of the Interior, where four of the nine major agencies are land management agencies with fire programs. However, on page 711 you will see that $158.4 million is appropriated department-wide and the Secretary of the Interior is granted authority to use the funds anywhere in the Department to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally.

FEMA will receive $100 M (page 703) for Assistance to Firefighter Grants for the purchase of personal protective equipment and related supplies, including reimbursements.

Congress considers additional Forest Service funding for COVID-19 pandemic

Funds are likely to be eventually appropriated to help at least one firefighting agency address some of the issues created by the virus

Smokejumpers attack wildfire
Smokejumpers prepare to attack a wildfire. NIFC.

A bill introduced in the Senate to help Americans and businesses deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic contained language to beef up the budget of the U.S. Forest Service (FS), but it failed to pass Sunday [UPDATE: and during a second attempt on Monday]. The $1.8 trillion bill included $71 million, or 0.004 percent of the total, for the FS to address the crisis. The funds were intended for personal protective equipment, health testing for first responders, cleaning, maintenance, and disinfecting but were to be “allocated at the discretion of the Chief of the Forest Service”, to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.”

The legislation appears to have been hurriedly drafted, probably within the last few days. I was not able to find any specific funding in the bill for the four agencies in the Department of the Interior that have wildfire responsibilities. If it had been written in January, a month after the outbreak began, there would have been more time to put together a comprehensive budget for all five firefighting agencies that would appropriate a substantial amount for directly increasing the ability to fight fires.

It is likely that the number of firefighters available to respond to wildfires through next year will be decreased as 20-person crews or 5-person engines have to be quarantined when one crew member tests positive for the virus or if they are exposed while fighting a fire.

Under these conditions, it will be difficult to use 100 percent of the usual capacity of the firefighting agencies. If more firefighters were hired it could make it possible to have healthy forces in reserve. It could also enhance the ability to attack new fires with overwhelming force.

Since firefighters assembling in groups to suppress a fire can put them at risk of spreading COVID-19, we need to rethink our tactics. This could include making far greater use of aerial firefighting. It should become standard operating procedure to have multiple large air tankers and helicopters safely and quickly attacking a new fire from the air, far from anyone on the ground infected with the virus.

The fewer large fires we have that require hundreds or thousands of firefighters to work together, the safer firefighters will be from additional virus exposure. Attacking new fires with overwhelming force would also reduce evacuations that can result in refugees assembling in large numbers. An infected person forced to leave their self-quarantine to fend around for housing during an emergency is a danger to society.

In order to better protect our homeland from wildfires during the pandemic the amount of additional funds appropriated for the five firefighting agencies in this bill needs to be increased by a factor of 10 or 20. Instead of 13 or 18 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts there should be 40, and the Type 1 helicopter numbers should increase from 28 to 50. The fleets of smaller air tankers and helicopters also need to be beefed up.

Having said that, air tankers don’t put out fires, but under ideal conditions they can slow the spread which allows firefighters on the ground the opportunity to move in and suppress the fire in that area.

If we expect to maintain the ability to fight wildfires, every firefighter must be tested on a regular basis. This can greatly reduce the risk when they gather in large numbers to suppress a fire.

Other key members of the wildland firefighting community must also be tested in order to maintain the viability of the system. This would include pilots, aircraft mechanics, air tanker base crews, helitack crews, dispatchers, members of Incident Management Teams, and contractors that supply firefighting equipment and services, especially caterers.

Safely fighting a wildfire during a pandemic this year and possibly next, is going to incredibly difficult. I am not sure if it can be done safely even if everyone involved has been tested for the virus and squadrons of air tankers and helicopters are used to the max in numbers not previously seen.