The Agony of Engine 57: Documenting the Esperanza FireBook Details Arsonist's Conviction for the Murder of Five Firefighters
by Steve Wilent
© 2013 The Forestry Source, Society of American Foresters, January 2013
Republished by permisson
John N. Maclean's The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder, and the Agony of Engine 57 is not a book about a wildfire. It is much more than that. With a keen eye and ear for detail and raw emotion, Maclean dissects the tragic circumstances surrounding the deaths of five firefighters in 2006 after a wind-driven fire burned over their position on a ridge amidst a sea of chaparral and a few trees. Whether or not you've ever been on the front line of a wildfire, this book is a gut-wrenching, compelling narrative. It reads like a taut murder mystery, a whodunit novel you can't put down, with a cast of fascinating characters that includes shady suspects, a dogged detective, DNA evidence, a divided jury, and the victims' grieving family, friends, and colleagues.
The fire, started by an arsonist on October 26, 2006, burned about 42,000 acres and destroyed 34 houses. The arsonist was caught, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Maclean, a seasoned journalist with storytelling in his blood, spent six years piecing together the story of the crime. As for the deaths, he also answers the question, "Why?'' as well it can be answered -- Why did the crew of Engine 57 hold its position on that hilltop, with a fire driven by Santa Ana winds below them? And was anyone, other than Raymond Lee Oyler, the arsonist, ultimately responsible for the deaths?
Maclean worked as a writer, editor, and reporter for the Chicago Tribune for 30 years. During that time he helped his father, Norman, edit Young Men and Fire, the elder Maclean's account of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire in Montana and the 13 men who died there. (Norman Maclean, who died in 1990, may be best known for his book, A River Runs through It and Other Stories, and the 1992 film based on the title story, directed by Robert Redford.) In 1995, John Maclean left his job with the Tribune to write Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire, an account of the deaths of 14 firefighters in Colorado in 1994. Since then he has written Fire and Ashes: On the Front Lines of American Wildfire and The Thirtymile Fire: A Chronicle of Bravery and Betrayal.
Maclean's fourth book, The Esperanza Fire, is due for release in February (it's now available for pre-order on amazon.com). I recently spoke with Maclean about the book and his recounting of events before, during, and after the fire. What follows is a portion of our conversation.
The TragedyAccording to the Esperanza Fire incident investigation report, the crew of Engine 57, a U.S. Forest Service Type III engine, was overrun by the fire near an isolated, vacant residential structure called the Octagon House. Engine 57's five crew members -- Captain Mark Loutzenhiser and firefighters Pablo Cerda, Jason McKay, Jess McLean, and Daniel Najera -- were fatally burned during the fire's sudden, intense run up a steep drainage below their position, where the slope averages 50 percent. At the time of the burnover, the fire was several hundred acres in size and burning rapidly in dense chaparral, pushed by north/northeast Santa Ana winds of about 13 miles per hour, with gusts up to 31 miles per hour (according to Maclean, some of the firefighters say wind gusts exceeded 50 miles per hour). Relative humidity was between 5 percent and 6 percent. Several spot fires and other factors created an "area ignition." The fatalities occurred in the rural mountain community of Twin Pines, which is wildland/urban intermix with an "extreme threat" rating for potential destructive impacts from wildfires.
What led you to look at the Esperanza Fire?
With Thirtymile and Esperanza, both of those stories came to me. One of the mothers [of a firefighter] on Thirtymile got in touch with me and said, "The investigation blames our children for their own deaths, accuses them of disobeying a direct order. We don't think that's what happened -- would you please come and look into this?" In the case of Esperanza, a couple of the engine captains who were with Loutzenhiser on that fire came to me and said, "Are you doing a story on Esperanza?" I said, "No, I'm not." I had started to look into it, but Cal Fire didn't want to screw up the prosecution of Raymond Oyler, the arsonist, and they had sent out a memo that told people not to talk to the press and, specifically, not to me.
The two Forest Service captains, both of whom were close friends of Loutzenhiser, convinced you to continue. You eventually interviewed them, as well as most of the crew members from the other engines who were on the fire that day near Engine 57.
To me, that's what makes these stories. You get detail, you get a democratic view of it; you don't just get a one-person look at it. You get a look from the back of the engine and from the captains' seats, as well as from the supervisors on the hill, of what was really going on, of what was going in people's minds at the time. The only way you get that is by sitting down with them and spending a long time talking. That's hard to do, but the results are what I want. And it seems to have resonance with the guys themselves, because in the end you have a text in which they participated. Not everybody who was mentioned in the book got a chance to read it ahead of time, but a lot of them did, and they corrected it. We're still making corrections on the final galleys. So they've bought into it. I get the byline, but I couldn't have done it without those people.
The deaths of firefighters -- these are very emotional issues for all parties involved. Do these emotions affect you?
It's difficult. Over the years I have learned to kind of protect myself from the worst of it. You have to participate emotionally with these people. You can't hold back entirely, but you can't go all the way.
I imagine that each person remembers what happened in his or her own way. In Chapter 7 you devote considerable attention to the exchange between Loutzenhiser and Cal Fire Battalion Chief Bob Toups just before the blowover. There's some controversy about exactly what Toups said at that time, whether or not he told or encouraged Loutzenhiser to abandon the Octagon House. What really happened?
They had some kind of a talk. Everybody that I've talked to, and not just Loutzenhiser's buddies, said it was the briefing of a lifetime. You know, they went over the 10 and 18, LCES, everything. It didn't happen quite the way Toups said it did -- he claimed a little too much. But there were people going around saying that Bob Toups killed our guys. That didn't happen. That's nonsense. Toups didn't send him down there, and he sure didn't tell them to set up at the Octagon.
The engines had been sent down there to do triage, get people out of there, and set up where they thought it was appropriate. That was the order. There wasn't somebody conducting oversight, with the exception of Bob Toups, who at least questioned where they were and said to Loutzenhiser, "I've just set up four units at the doublewide and your position seems more exposed." At minimum, that's what happened.
Why did Loutzenhiser, an experienced engine captain, elect to stay at the Octagon House? Was the "can do" attitude that you wrote about in the South Canyon Fire book a factor?
Absent the area ignition, they would've had a very rough time at the Octagon House, but they would've made it. There might have been an injury, minor burns, but everybody would've lived. You cannot predict an area ignition. They're not rare; they happen with frequency. When I was in Colorado giving a talk on the fire recently, a guy came up to me -- he had fought fire out there -- and suggested that they were freelancing, that they were not formed up into a formal strike team -- all of which is true. But if you're going to fight fires in Southern California, you're going to wind up in situations similar to that. I discuss in the book where a Cal Fire engine gets assigned to go down there late, much later than Loutzenhiser and the rest of the engines, when the fire has developed more and you can figure out more about what's going to happen. They set up directly above the Octagon, and they get hit with the area ignition. But by that time it has spent a lot of its force and they're not killed. Does that tell you anything? It does me.
There had been a fire there in the 1990s, and Cal Fire had parked an engine down at the end of the driveway [to the Octagon House]. The fire never made it to the house, but it could have. If you'd had a Santa Ana and an area ignition, the same thing could have happened. But Cal Fire parked there. That's what you do if you fight fire in Southern California.
After the South Canyon Fire, people asked why were they risking all those lives to put out a fire in scrub oak on steep slopes, saying that the value of the resources didn't justify that risk. Might the same have applied to the Esperanza Fire?
And the next time they had a fire there in Colorado, the Coal Seam Fire [in 2002], that's exactly the way they behaved. The incident commander looked at it and said, "Back off." They wound up losing 29 structures, but nobody got a hangnail over it.
You've been at the scene of the fire, the Octagon House. Why was it worth risking a single life, once they were certain there were no citizens in harm's way?
We all know the three top priorities: protect people's lives, forest values, and property, in that order. That's what they are paid to do. You cannot fight fire in Southern California without engaging in structure protection.
The deaths of the firefighters, as well as a string of arson and suspected arson fires that summer, spurred an intensive search for a suspect or suspects. Scott Michaels, a Riverside County homicide detective, pursued Oyler despite opposition from other law enforcement officers. It was largely due to Michaels's efforts that Oyler was arrested on October 31, 2006, just five days after the fatalities. In 2009, Oyler was convicted of five counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. He was the first person in the United States to be sentenced to death for wildfire arson (See Maclean's Commentary, "Start a Wildfire, Go to Jail -- Or Worse" in the October 2012 Forestry Source). He is currently serving time in California's San Quentin State Prison.
Aside from Oyler, does anyone else bear responsibility for the deaths of the Engine 57 crew?
Well, there's a lot of responsibility to be assigned to Oyler. There would not have been a problem if there hadn't been an arsonist. Did he time it to match the Santa Ana? Was he that sophisticated? Probably not. From his point of view, he got lucky.
I've corresponded with Oyler a lot since the trial. He claims that he didn't set the fire. He is not what you think of when you think of a murderer, a mass murderer, someone who is deliberate, violent, vicious. An arsonist is by definition a coward, and that's what Oyler is. He complains to me that he is on Death Row, where he has to rub shoulders with murderers. Well, what the hell do you think you are, Ray?
When I started my correspondence with him, I told him two things: first of all, I will not lie to you. I think that the jury verdict was handled properly, and I also think the same about their recommendation of the death penalty. Second, if we're going to correspond, I'm going to ask you some questions about these other fires where there is, in fact, irrefutable evidence -- DNA, for example.
He admits to setting the other fires?
No, he doesn't. His lawyer did. His lawyer said, find him guilty of all of the June fires that involved the layover [incendiary] devices, two of which were DNA hits. But Raymond has never admitted that. He didn't admit it to me, because he has an appeal pending.
This was not a lightning strike; it was not nature at work. It was an unnatural, criminal act, and I don't think you have to go beyond that in terms of blaming anybody. The firefighters -- the Forest Service and Cal Fire people -- did most things right. They did their jobs. When their supervisors testified under oath in court, they said they would pretty much do it the same way again. In fact, the Forest Service, after looking at the whole thing and trying to decide whether structure protection was a reasonable requirement for Forest Service engines in that area, decided that it was, and that they're going to continue to do that.
Do you think Oyler set the Esperanza Fire?
Yes. I think the judge had it right. There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but there is such a thing as reasonable doubt, and I have no reasonable doubt that Raymond Oyler set the Esperanza Fire.