USDA Inspector General finds no misconduct in Esperanza fire deaths

Esperanza fire engine 57 This is a big relief, but it’s not over yet. Federal prosecutors have a total of five years to decide they will file criminal charges against firefighters.

Here is an excerpt from an article by Ben Goad in the Press-Enterprise, which has been doing a great job of covering the Esperanza fire:

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A three-year federal probe into the actions of firefighters who battled the deadly 2006 Esperanza fire found no evidence of misconduct.

In a report issued today by the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Office of Inspector General, investigators concluded that the deaths five U.S. Forest Service firefighters were the result of several factors that combined during the swirling wildfire, which overcame the men of Engine Crew 57 as they fought to save a hillside home.

“In the Esperanza Fire, these included rapid, unexpected fire behavior – propelled by the sudden emergence of fire-related weather phenomena – and the forward location of a (Forest Service) crew,” according to a summary of the report sent to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Investigators based their findings on interviews with 23 Forest Service firefighters and officials, who fought the blaze alongside Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency. However, only one 14 Cal Fire employees contacted by investigators agreed to be interviewed, investigators said.

The investigation is just the third of its kind and was required by a 2002 law mandating the office investigate deaths of federal firefighters who are killed in burnovers or entrapments.

The two previous investigations led to charges against two fire commanders in the deaths of federal firefighters in Washington State and Idaho.

The law was created after the 2001 Thirtymile Fire in Washington state, which killed four firefighters. U.S. Forest Service supervisor Ellreese N. Daniels was indicted on charges of involuntary manslaughter and lying to investigators.

After the 2003 Cramer Fire in Idaho, in which two firefighters died, the U.S. attorney’s office filed charges against that fire’s incident commander, Alan Hackett, who was found to have been negligent in his management of the blaze.

Killed in the fire were Engine 57 Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, of Idyllwild; Jason McKay, 27, of Apple Valley; Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley; and Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto.

Arsonist Raymond Lee Oyler was convicted for setting the fire and is sentenced to die for the crime. (End of Press-Enterprise article.)

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HERE is a link to an AP article on the same topic.

The entire 26-page report from the USDA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) is HERE, minus the redactions.

The 7-page Transmittal Letter to the USDA and Congress is HERE. It is pretty interesting reading. The letter reveals that 23 USFS employees were interviewed by the OIG, but 14 of the 15 CalFire employees that the OIG wanted to talk to declined to be interviewed. The only CalFire person that was interviewed was the Branch Director that supervised the area of the fire in which the fatality occurred.

The letter explains that the OIG Special Agents who investigated the fire have taken basic firefighter training (S-130/190) and wildland fire investigation. The Special Agents have also visited one or more fires “to observe firefighting operations”. But even though they are proud of their qualifications to investigate a multiple fatality fire, the names of the Special Agents were redacted from the report.

HERE is a link to an article we wrote on October 23 about the delay in issuing the OIG report. The article generated 12 comments from our readers, including some from author John N. Maclean.

By the way, this is the 20th article Wildfire Today has written about the Esperanza Fire.

UPDATE at 9:44 a.m. Dec. 4

The Press-Enterprise has another article about the investigation report HERE.

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UPDATE November 12, 2013:

Esperanza Fire Factual Report, and the USDA Office of Inspector General’s Report on the fire.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+