In October 2006, five U.S. Forest Service firefighters — Captain Mark Loutzenhiser, Fire Engine Operator Jess McClean, Assistant Fire Engine Operator Jason McKay and firefighters Daniel Hoover-Najera, and Pablo Cerda — perished in the tragic fire.
On March 8, John MacLean will discuss his book “The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder, and the Agony of Engine 57” at the Rustic Theatre. MacLean spoke to the Town Crier, Sunday, Feb. 24, about the book and his writing on wildland fires.
This is the second part of that interview.
MacLean said the book is really two stories, the fire and the arson investigation and prosecution. On March 6, 2009, less than 30 months after the Esperanza Fire and the five deaths, Raymond Oyler was found guilty of both arson and murder.
You covered the trial and have said you believe Oyler’s guilty?
“I’ve been in touch with Ray Oyler and I’ll try to see him this spring,” MacLean said. “He maintains he did not set Esperanza and won’t talk about the other fires.”
During their correspondence, Oyler has been polite and respectful, according to MacLean. In fact, Oyler advised MacLean to avoid sending him a book until a paperback version is available. The prison policy is to search incoming books and their covers for hidden tools, which would destroy the book.
“I wouldn’t do that to one of my books,” MacLean said.
Having read the official reports from the Forest Service, CAL Fire, others, what is your opinion of them?
The legal machinations quickly assumed the highest priority, according to MacLean. The cautious and careful steps to ensure the prosecution was not impaired affected the fire investigations, in his opinion.
For example, for days and weeks, the chief Forest Service investigator was not allowed on the scene to avoid contaminating the evidence. Interviews were constrained because everybody was worried that someone might make a statement that would jeopardize Oyler’s prosecution.
It wasn’t a transparent process, MacLean stressed. In a process where professionals try to learn from mistakes, glean better procedures and improve results, much more reviewing and vetting of the reports would have normally occurred. MacLean opined. “It was less than exemplary.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General’s report was delayed several years (November 2009), and MacLean felt that report was more accurate. But he stressed it takes time and many participants to review the document to improve its accuracy.
This “vetting” process, as he referred to it, is one reason it took nearly six years for him to complete the book. “Why can’t you wait and be thorough and vet it to learn the safety lessons?” he asked. “If the report is not good, then the investigative process isn’t.”
Do you believe any fire official put Engine 57 in harms way?
In an area ignition, it would have been difficult for anyone to survive, MacLean believes. The firefighters were in the area for structure protection and evacuation. “They were responsible for saving at least one life and maybe four,” MacLean stated. “But the decision to set up and remain at the site [the Octagon House] remains on the shoulders of Engine 57.”
Their job was to do structure protection. The Octagon House had a clean bill of health and CAL FIRE used it to set up in a previous fire, MacLean explained. “Engine 57 did its job,” he concluded.
Since you have visited Twin Pines in the past several years, what did you observe and what opinions did you reach?
While multiple fires have occurred in same area as the Esperanza Fire and other deaths have occurred, MacLean accepts that it is a beautiful area where people like the view and land is cheap. “They’ll always live on the ridge,” he believes. “Nothing came from it.”
What about the future and other wildland firefighting issues, e.g., aircraft?
Based on his three books, MacLean has observed an evolution in wildland firefighting. In 1994, the South Canyon fire killed 14 wildland firefighters. In 2002, they fought the Coal Seam Fire totally differently — the firefighters were pulled back. “Consequently, more than 20 structures were lost, but no people,” he noted. “The evacuation at Esperanza was totally different than in the 2003 fires. The neighborhood was prepared and calling each other.”
He doesn’t foresee a single federal firefighting force. “CAL FIRE is trained for structures. Why not have different units fighting fires? The Fish and Wildlife Service does a lot of firefighting and the National Park Service does its own job. Realistically, that’s the way it will be,” he said. “There are inter-agency hotshot crews and it doesn’t matter whether the fire is in Virginia or Colorado. Making everything the same doesn’t make sense.
“An up-to-date air force is too much money in a period of austerity,” he added. “That would make the biggest difference, a whole new air force, but there’s no money nor will power.”
MacLean will also be signing his book Saturday, March 9 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the District Ranger office on Pine Crest Avenue. The Forest Service Volunteers Association is sponsoring this signing. You can bring your book or purchase one there.