It was a reunion of people from all over Southern California — parents, grandparents, children, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, girlfriends and widows. Yes, widows. And friends and co-workers. And TV crews.
In an unlikely place for one — a barren area that requires driving a long, rutted, rocky and unpaved road — this family reunion marked the 10th anniversary of the tragic deaths of five U.S. Forest Service firefighters on Oct. 26, 2006.
Each year on that day, families, friends and co-workers migrate toward that site, a property — an octagonal house with a garage on well-abated land. This is property the men were defending against the Esperanza Fire, the site of the burn-over that cost the firefighters their lives.
The annual gathering is held to pause at noon for a moment of silence. Afterward, they eat lunch and enjoy one another’s company, as if it were a family reunion.
As former Cal Fire Public Information Officer Julie Hutchinson said, “We kind of all are family. When you go through these tough times together, we become family.” She was one of those involved in answering media questions after the tragedy.
Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser and four of his Engine 57 crew members, stationed out of the Alandale Guard Station just a few miles north of Pine Cove, lost their lives in the fire ignited by Raymond Lee Oyler, now serving on death row for the arson.
Then-Division Chief Norm Walker said, “As soon as it happened, I came up here Code 3 [hot response].” He arrived at the scene just 20 or 30 minutes after the burn-over. Despite the long and rugged drive, he doesn’t remember it.
He said Loutzenhiser was still alive and being transported by air rescue to an area hospital. Pablo Cerda also was still alive and being transported by air rescue when he arrived. Daniel Hoover Najera’s body was found down on a slope below the garage. Jess “Gus” McLean’s body was found near the burned-out fire engine.
“We had to search for Jason McKay. We couldn’t find him,” Walker said. He was between a Volkswagen Beetle and an old tractor. “He was fairly unrecognizable.”
He said they had to make some decisions about securing the site. And he called the San Bernardino National Forest dispatcher. “I told them the U.S. Forest Service would not be involved in the fire anymore.” Cal Fire took over, and all Forest Service crews were taken off the fire and sent to the Vista Grande Guard Station.
“They were allowed one phone call,” Walker said. They were allowed to tell what happened but not to whom. Then administrators spent two to three hours trying to get to the families before the media got wind of the tragedy. They succeeded.
Loutzenhiser died later that day. Cerda died five days later on Oct. 31.
The people at the 10th anniversary were jovial, hugging and posing for group photos. A few minutes before noon, they became more solemn and quiet. Battalion Chief Chris Fogle, with his right arm in a sling, asked the group to gather in a circle in front of a large monument built at the bottom of the site. Maria, Loutzenhiser’s widow, asked everyone to hold hands.
Several Forest Service personnel in uniform readied their radios. Right at noon, dispatch made the announcement of the 10th anniversary of the five firefighters’ greatest sacrifice. People bowed their heads for several moments of silence, some wiping away tears. (At 7:57 a.m., the time of the burn-over, Riverside County’s Perris Emergency Command Center also made an announcement.)
Fogle then came forward, gave a prayer and invited everyone up to the house, now a converted warehouse since the burn-over, where they could enjoy a barbecue and look out over the rugged terrain from high on a hill.
Friends and family of Hoover Najera took their plates of barbecue down to the spot where he died.
McLean’s mother, Ceil McLean, said she gets by with the help of her family and friends. “Every year gets a little easier,” she said.
Josh Whitney, a former U.S. Forest Service firefighter, said he tries to come to the reunion every year. “Mark and Jesse worked for me and Doug [Henninger] when we were partners … maybe 30 years ago.”
Seth Loutzenhiser said he and his twin, Kyle, don’t remember much about their father. The 18-year-olds recently graduated from high school. They were 8 at the time and the youngest of Mark’s children. “He taught us how to ride a bike and my brother hit the fence,” Seth remembered.
Denise Koeller, spouse of property owner Greg Koeller, said when she learned of the death of the firefighters, she became physically ill. They were at their primary residence off the Hill when they heard. She said she didn’t care that their house and things were lost.
Her husband allows fire management to train firefighters on the property now. Every time the Forest Service pays him, he reinvests the money into something dedicated to the Engine 57 crew. He recently added a display along the road outside his property for co-workers and family members to post their memories.
“This was a life-changing event for all of us,” said Hutchinson. “It was a reality check for all of us. This could have been any of us.” She said firefighters are trained and believe the training protects them. They never think about this happening to them. “There are things that are outside of our control.”