A memorial to the five fallen Forest Service firefighters has been maintained on Highway 74 in Valle Vista. Dianne and Eddie Verdugo, retired captain of Engine 53, erected and kept the memorial.  Photo by Kirsten Torrez
A memorial to the five fallen Forest Service firefighters has been maintained on Highway 74 in Valle Vista. Dianne and Eddie Verdugo, retired captain of Engine 53, erected and kept the memorial. Photo by Kirsten Torrez

Fire is a constant threat in the San Jacinto Mountains. But 10 years ago, on Oct. 26, 2006, it became very personal to the town and people of Idyllwild.

The Esperanza Fire was a wind-driven, arson-caused wildfire that started at 1:11 a.m. in a river wash near Cabazon. Raymond Lee Oyler set the blaze which rapidly expanded, driven by early morning winds.

That morning, among the firefighters that responded to the growing conflagration, was the crew of Engine 57, U.S. Forest Service Station 57, Alandale. The five members of the crew were Engine Captain Mark Loutzenhiser, 44, who had 21 years of service at the time and was a resident of Idyllwild; Jess McLean, fire engine operator, 27, a resident of Beaumont who had seven years of firefighting service and had been a hotshot with Vista Grande for three years; Jason McKay, assistant fire engine operator, 27, with five years of Forest Service experience and four as a volunteer firefighter in Adelanto, and was a resident of Phelan; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, in his second season as a firefighter and a resident of San Jacinto; and Pablo Cerda, 23, also in his second season as a firefighter and a resident of Fountain Valley.

By 4 a.m., the Engine 57 crew had joined with four other Forest Service crews at the command post near Cabazon. They were then assigned to help with evacuations and protect homes in the Twin Pines area off of Highway 243. They eventually deployed to defend an octagonal house in the Twin Pines area. The terrain in the area was tricky, the roads narrow and the winds continued to grow in intensity, fueled by the fire’s growing heat.

Wind and billowing smoke made flying tankers into the fire impossible in the early hours of the fire, leaving the ground crews to battle the blaze.

Soon, 50 mph winds, coupled with the rugged terrain, and plenty of dry brush and fire fuel had created a firestorm of extraordinary danger. Shortly after 7 a.m., radio communication with Engine 57 grew silent.

Three of the five member crew died at the house. Both Loutzenhiser and Cerda were transported to the Arrowhead Regional Medical Center but later died from their injuries.

For Idyllwild, small and close knit town that it is, the loss was deeply personal. It is a community where most people know their neighbors and many knew the Loutzenhiser family and other members of the Engine 57 crew.

“It’s always been difficult each year since,” said Maria Loutzenhiser, Mark’s widow. “But for me, God and my faith have helped me and my family to get through. This community and its support have made such a difference.

“I’ve lived here all my life and the support of family and friends, the love and support from everywhere, has been so important. And the support of our fire family has been important – we’ve stayed in touch over the years. The prayers of the community have kept us going, and for that we will always be grateful.”

1 COMMENT

  1. We will all remember the events of that day. Tom Chester and I had planned a botany hike that morning, and there was a somber mood at the Ranger station when I stopped to pick up a permit as the news was already circulating around town. We hiked up the South Ridge Trail where witnessing the inferno I remained on duty in the lookout tower. Smoke slowly filled the valley, and I could no longer see the town. It seemed to be lapping like waves at the base of the tower. As a lookout there was nothing I could do but listen to the chatter on the radio. I feared for the worst. My emotions were mixed as I was witness to the devastation and apprehensive about losing my property, but at the same time glad that I was not at home and uninformed. Later the smoke cleared indicating a change in the wind that kept the fire from crossing the North Fork and racing unabated up the hill and into the town. On June 30, 2013, I received word from neighbors in Arizona of 19 more brave young men who perished in the Yarnell Hill Fire as members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Let them and all those who have lost their lives never be forgotten.

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