Esperanza Fire: One Trial or Six?

The 5-person crew of Engine 57 from the San Bernardino National Forest was killed while trying to protect a house during the Esperanza Fire in Southern California on October 26, 2006.

From the Press-Enterprise :

“Raymond Lee Oyler, charged with murder and arson in the deaths of five U.S. Forest Service firefighters, wants the 45 charges against him divided into six separate trials.“Very weak charges have been joined with particularly strong ones,” Mark R. McDonald, Oyler’s attorney, argues in the motion filed Friday.

The defense attorney claims putting all the charges in one trial, especially when some carry a death penalty, “will substantially prejudice Mr. Oyler in his right to a fair trial.”

The motion, which will be heard March 21, “is not unusual; it’s an effort to sever the capital counts from the non-capital counts,” said Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin. He said he will file a written response with Riverside County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Prevost.

McDonald argues that Oyler should face six separate cases with the charges arranged on the types of evidence gathered from May through October 2006, when 62 fires struck the Banning Pass area.

Oyler is charged with starting 23 of them. He also faces five murder counts and 17 charges of using a device to commit arson.

He was arrested shortly the deadly Esperanza Fire, which began Oct. 26, 2006. Arson investigators said the 43,000-acre blaze was started by a device made of six wooden matches attached to a lit cigarette with a rubber band.

Driven by Santa Ana winds, the fire moved from its 1 a.m. flashpoint near Cabazon up the side of the San Jacinto Mountains. The five firefighters who perished were trapped by flames as they defended a home.

During Oyler’s preliminary hearing last year, investigators described six distinct devices used to set the fires the former Beaumont mechanic is charged with.

“Only two of the fires bear any forensic connection to Mr. Oyler,” McDonald argues. DNA was collected from the remains of cigarettes laid across wooden matchsticks on arson fires set June 9 and 10, 2006, in the Banning Pass area.

McDonald wants the case broken down into cigarettes placed over matches; matches bound by a rubber band to a cigarette (including the Esperanza Fire); “open flame device” fires which investigators declared arson by process of elimination; wooden matches; cigarette-and-paper match devices; and matches affixed to a cigarette with a strip of duct tape.

Oyler, 37, remains in custody without bail. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.”

Mark Rey Hopes to Stay Out of Prison on Tuesday

Mark Rey
Mark Rey

The Associated Press and The Oregonian both have interesting stories about Mark Rey, the Undersecretary of Agriculture, and how there is a chance he could be sentenced to prison for charges that he violated the law regarding the use of aerial fire retardant.

Here is an excerpt from The Oregonian:

“An irritated federal judge in Montana appears ready to go along with the request by Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, based in Eugene, to hold the Bush official who oversees the Forest Service in contempt of court for disobeying his orders.
The judge, Donald Molloy of Missoula, has said that at a hearing Tuesday, he could either jail Mark Rey, the undersecretary of Agriculture, place him under house arrest or suspend all use of fire retardant – the red slurry dropped to slow wildfires.”

The Associated Press had this to say, in part:

“WASHINGTON (AP) — He overhauled federal forest policy to cut more trees — and became a lightning rod for environmentalists who say he is intent on logging every tree in his reach.After nearly seven years in office, Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey still has a long to-do list. Near the top: Persuade a federal judge to keep him out of jail.

Rey, a former timber industry lobbyist who has directed U.S. forest policy since 2001, also wants to set up state rules making it easier to build roads in remote national forests and restore overgrown, unhealthy forests by clearing them of small trees and debris that can stoke wildfires. And he wants to streamline cumbersome regulations that can paralyze actions on public lands.

A Montana judge, accusing Rey of deliberately skirting the law so the Forest Service can keep fighting wildfires with a flame retardant that kills fish, has threatened to put him behind bars.

For Rey, who faces a court date Tuesday, the prospect of jail time is daunting. But it’s just one more obstacle as he attempts to rid federal policies of pesky paperwork and endless litigation that slows forest managers from cutting down trees.”

Fighting Fire With Hay Bales and a Tarp

An article by J. P. Plutt on the University of Montana Extension site describes how to quickly construct a helicopter dip tank or water reservoir with hay bales and a tarp. Add a pump and some fire hose and it can be used to protect a structure. Here is a portion of the article:

“The components of Liggett’s structure protection system include hay bales, a tarp, a pump, fire hose, and a few valves. You take the fire hose, drill holes in it and attach it around the structure. You arrange the hay bales in a rectangle, cover it with the tarp and fill it with as much as 12,000 gallons of water. If fire approaches, the owner need only turn on the pump and get out of there. The system can keep the structure soaking in water for up to 12 hours, which conceivably would protect the building from reaching ignition temperatures until the fire front passes and firefighters can safely enter the area to do the mop-up work.”

This could actually work until you get a spot fire in the hay. But in a remote dry site, a dip tank quickly constructed like this could be invaluable.

Outsourcing Fire Suppression?

An article in the Washington Post claims the Administration intends to reinstate the competitive sourcing program within the U.S. Forest Service in 2009. The author, Stephen Barr, raises some interesting issues about how this could affect responses to fires and other emergencies.

Here are some excerpts:

“The Government Accountability Office faulted outsourcing projects at the Forest Service in a report released yesterday, prompting renewed calls for more scrutiny of the Bush administration’s effort to contract out federal jobs, a plan known as competitive sourcing.

The Forest Service does not have a realistic long-term plan for determining which agency jobs should be given to the private sector and does not have reliable data to back up claims of cost savings, the GAO said.

In addition, outsourcing substantial numbers of Forest Service jobs to the private sector could, over time, reduce the agency’s ability to fight fires in the wilderness and to respond to emergencies such as Hurricane Katrina.”

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“According to the GAO, the Forest Service plans to consider putting nearly two-thirds of the agency’s workforce into job competitions against the private sector.

The success of such a “massive undertaking” will hinge on clear guidelines and “a strategy to assess the cumulative effect that outsourcing a large number of federal jobs could have on its firefighting capability. Unfortunately, the Forest Service has none of these in place,” the GAO concluded.

The Forest Service has about 37,000 full-time employees. About 10,000 hold a job related to firefighting, and another 20,000 are certified to fight fires and respond to national emergencies.

In its report, the GAO questioned whether contractors can be expected to provide emergency services, compared with Forest Service employees who know they may be asked to volunteer for one to three weeks each year on a fire line.”

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“Because of the controversy over job competitions and estimated savings, Congress shut down the Forest Service’s competitive sourcing program for fiscal 2008. The administration wants to reinstate it for 2009.”

Update: Feb. 29, 2009
HERE is a link to the GAO report.

U.S. Supreme Court Denies Air Tanker Pilots’ Widows Death Benefits

For some reason there have been a lot of stories about air tankers recently.

From the Redding Record Searchlight Online, an excerpt:

The Sonoma County widow of one of two air tanker pilots killed while fighting a fire in Mendocino County in 2001 has lost her bid to seek federal death benefits.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday denied an appeal filed by Christine Wells-Groff of Windsor to seek federal death benefits for her and other widows of firefighting pilots, including the widow of a Redding man, killed in the line of duty.

The widows are not entitled to federal death benefits — about $250,000 — because, unlike other public safety employees killed on the job, the pilots worked for a company that contracted with the state and were not public employees.

Wells-Groff’s husband, Larry, 55, and 45-year-old pilot Lars Stratte of Redding, were killed near Hopland on Aug. 27, 2001, when their air tankers collided while fighting a 242-acre brush fire. Both men were employed by San Joaquin Helicopters, a Delano-based company, under contract with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The Aerial Firefighter Relief Act, which was introduced in December, would extend federal death and disability benefits to contract pilots and air crews killed or injured while flying official firefighting missions for state or federal agencies. It would also make the coverage retroactive to 1976.

The legislation is a companion to legislation introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Barbara Cubin, R-Wyo.

Wells-Groff and Stratte are among dozens of tanker pilots’ widows denied death benefits since 1980, when the U.S. Department of Justice decided that tanker pilots are excluded from federal death benefits.

Pincha-Tulley in the News

Jeanne Pincha-TulleyJeanne Pincha-Tulley, Incident Commander of one of the Type 1 Incident Management Teams in California, was featured earlier in a story in The Union in Grass Valley, California.

Here is an excerpt:

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Years of sleeping in the dirt and spending weeks away from her family haven’t extinguished Jeanne Pincha-Tulley’s love of corralling blazes.

The 49-year-old mother of two boys has followed fire all of her adult life, a passion that has led her to become the first and only woman incident commander of a national fire team.

“Does it take a lot of brains to do that? No. It takes a flak jacket and lot of Motrin,” Pincha-Tulley joked from her office as forest fire chief at the Tahoe National Forest headquarters on Nevada City’s Coyote Street.

“You don’t camp out in the dirt for nothing. You want to do something for the common good,” Pincha-Tulley said.

Last summer, Pincha-Tulley led her team in Ketchum, Idaho, during the 48,520-acre Castle Rock Fire, which singed the outskirts of the resort community of Sun Valley. Local celebrities Bruce Willis and Steve Miller threw a concert in honor of the firefighters after the team saved their homes.

Pincha-Tulley’s team arrived in Mississippi four hours after Hurricane Katrina devastated the coastline.

“We had a grand time. There was devastation everywhere. We were literally saving people from trees,” Pincha-Tulley said.