On Oct. 26, 2006, flames from a raging brushfire in the San Jacinto Mountains overran five members of a U.S. Forest Service crew, killing all five men as they tried to save an unoccupied mountainside home.
A Riverside County jury convicted Raymond Lee Oyler, a Beaumont mechanic, of first-degree murder for setting the fire. He was sentenced to the death penalty. Killed were Daniel Hoover-Najera of San Jacinto, Jason McKay of Apple Valley, Pablo Cerda of Fountain Valley, Jess McLean of Beaumont, and fire Captain Mark Loutzenhiser of Idyllwild.
The deadly fire and the case against Oyler are detailed in a new book released this week called, “The Esperanza Fire — Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57,” by veteran journalist John N. Maclean.
Maclean, who lives in Washington D.C., will discuss the writing of his book at 12:30 p.m. Friday, March 8, at the Rustic Theatre in Idyllwild. His presentation will include a discussion of the Esperanza Fire with Forest Service personnel, including firefighters who were with Engine 57.
“I feel very honored that people would invest that much trust and time and energy. This is a democratically gathered book. It was a community project,” Maclean said in an interview.
Maclean will also sign copies of his book at the U.S. Forest Service Idyllwild Ranger Station from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 9.
Published by Counterpoint Press, “The Esperanza Fire” tells the story from numerous interviews Maclean had over a six-year period with surviving firefighters, prosecutors, investigators, the victims’ families and many others involved. Maclean visited the site of the Esperanza Fire many times and covered the Oyler trial in Riverside. The Esperanza Fire marked the first time an arsonist was successfully prosecuted for murder for setting a fatal wildland fire.
Oyler denied setting the Esperanza Fire but Maclean said he believes he did set it, based on the evidence. Maclean and Oyler have corresponded by mail since Oyler landed on Death Row at San Quentin Prison but Maclean hasn’t interviewed Oyler in person. Maclean said he told Oyler he thought the jurors came to a proper conclusion and that he received a just punishment.
“He hasn’t read the book yet. I’m hoping this relationship survives his reading of the book,” Maclean said.
“The Esperanza Fire” may come to life one day on the big screen. Legendary Pictures has closed a deal with Maclean for an option to adapt his book into a feature film, he confirmed.
Maclean worked as a writer, editor, and reporter for the Chicago Tribune for 30 years. In 1995, Maclean left his job at the age of 52 to write “Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire,” which details the deaths of 14 firefighters in Colorado in 1994. “Fire on the Mountain” was featured in two documentaries by Dateline NBC and the History Channel. Maclean later wrote, “Fire and Ashes: On the Front Lines of American Wildfire,” and “The Thirtymile Fire: A Chronicle of Bravery and Betrayal,” about a fire in North-Central Washington that killed four firefighters.
The Esperanza Fire started in the San Jacinto Mountains above the Banning Pass. It destroyed 34 houses and burned 40,000 acres. Forest Service Engine 57 tried to defend the Twin Pines neighborhood on a steep ridge face. Flames and superheated gases erupted in what is called an “area ignition,” sending out a flamethrower-like wall of flames three-quarters of a mile. It swept over the uninhabited house that Engine 57’s crew was trying to protect and also hit the firefighters.
Maclean acknowledged that people question why firefighters defend an uninhabited house despite the danger to their own lives.
“Because that’s what they do,” he said, adding that firefighters also saved at least four lives during the Esperanza blaze by evacuating people who had refused to leave the area or their homes and were trapped on the burning mountain.
“It is far too easy to say they were wrong to be there. They were doing their jobs.”
Is there a lesson to be learned from this tragedy?
“It’s not an easy lesson. If there is one lesson that I’ve seen in a lot of fatal fires, it is after you have implemented a fire plan and time has passed, have a second thought. Look at it again. Conditions have changed. The trouble is that’s when you are really tired. It’s the low point in the day. That’s the key moment as you are about to head into the severe burning period. Check it again. Be a little skeptical about yourself. The way to pay honor to them and the others is keep thinking when it’s really hard to think.”
“As for methods of fighting fires, I leave that to the firefighters. I don’t tell them how to fight fires.”
“The Esperanza Fire” is available on Amazon or readers can buy an autographed copy from www.johnmacleanbooks.com.
Amy Bentley is a local writer and regular contributor to SWRNN.