TBT, 10 years ago: Oyler convicted for Esperanza fire deaths

For throwback Thursday, here is a copy of an article we published on March 7, 2009. FYI: Raymond Lee Oyler remains on death row at San Quentin State Prison in California.

Raymond Lee Oyler, left, is taken out of Riverside Superior Court after being found guilty on Friday/ Press-Enterprise

A four-man, eight-woman jury today found Raymond Lee Oyler, 38, guilty on 42 of 45 counts against him, including five counts of first-degree murder, 20 counts of arson and 17 counts of using an incendiary device to start fires between May 16, 2006 and Oct. 26, 2006 [including the Esperanza Fire in Southern California in which five U.S. Forest Service firefighters were killed].

Jurors deadlocked on whether he started three smaller wildfires and Superior Court Judge W. Charles Morgan declared a mistrial on those counts.

Here are the verdicts broken down by individual counts (other than the murder charges, some of these are for arson, and others are for using an incendiary device–in some cases two charges for one fire):

  1. Guilty, murder of Mark Loutzenhiser
  2. Guilty, murder of Daniel Hoover-Najera
  3. Guilty, murder of Jess McClean
  4. Guilty, murder of Jason McKay
  5. Guilty, murder of Pablo Cerda
  6. May 16 fire, guilty
  7. May 16 fire, guilty
  8. May 16 fire, guilty
  9. May 29 fire, deadlocked, mistrial declared
  10. May 29 fire, deadlocked, mistrial declared
  11. May 31 fire, deadlocked, mistrial declared
  12. June 3 fire, guilty
  13. June 4 fire, guilty
  14. June 9 fire, guilty
  15. June 10 fire, guilty
  16. June 11 fire, guilty
  17. June 14 fire, guilty
  18. June 14 fire, guilty
  19. June 14 fire, guilty
  20. June 15 fire, guilty
  21. June 28 fire, guilty
  22. July 2 fire, guilty
  23. July 9 fire, guilty
  24. Sept. 16 fire, guilty
  25. Sept 16 fire, guilty
  26. Sept 17 fire, guilty
  27. Oct. 22 fire, guilty
  28. Oct. 26 fire, Esperanza fire, guilty
  29. May 16 fire, guilty
  30. May 16 fire, guilty
  31. May 16 fire, guilty
  32. June 3 fire, guilty
  33. June 7 fire, guilty
  34. June 9 fire, guilty
  35. June 10 fire, guilty
  36. June 11 fire, guilty
  37. June 14 fire, guilty
  38. June 14 fire, guilty
  39. June 14 fire, guilty
  40. June 28 fire, guilty
  41. July 2 fire, guilty
  42. July 9 fire, guilty
  43. Sept. 16 fire, guilty
  44. Sept. 17 fire, guilty
  45. Oct. 26 fire, Esperanza fire, guilty

On the first five counts Olyer was convicted of first degree murder and of special circumstances for “murder in the commission of arson” and for “multiple murders”.

District Attorney Rod Pacheco said the following about the verdicts:

We are obviously satisfied with the verdicts and that the jury was able to sort through the evidence. A substantial amount of justice has occurred, and I hope that this provides a small measure of consolation to the families of the victims.

Oyler was on trial for setting the October 26, 2006, Esperanza fire which burned 41,000 acres near Cabazon, California and resulted in the deaths of the five-person Engine 57 crew from the San Bernardino National Forest. Killed were Capt. Mark Allen Loutzenhiser, 43, Jason Robert McKay, 27, Jess Edward McLean, 27, Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, and Pablo Cerda, 24.

From the LA Times:

After the trial, the sobbing Oyler family hurried to an elevator and left the building. The families of the victims also left without speaking to the media. A U.S. Forest Service spokesman said the families would not speak until after the penalty phases, which will decide whether Oyler gets the death penalty.

Outside the courtroom, Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins praised the verdicts but noted that five firefighters will never come home.

“Their families have suffered a loss that most of us can’t imagine,” he said. “This will not bring complete closure but it will bring the defendant to justice. It will help the families move to another phase of healing.”

Jeanne Wade Evans, supervisor of the San Bernardino National Forest, said arson is a terrible crime that touches so many lives.

“We still feel the loss and we always will,” she said.

At least a dozen current and retired fire personnel filled the left side of the courtroom. They were seated directly behind relatives of the five fallen USFS crew members.

Sentencing, which could include the death penalty for the murder charges, will begin Tuesday when the jury returns for that phase.


UPDATE November 12, 2013:

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

Two movies in development about fatal wildfires

Development is moving forward on two movies about wildfires on which multiple firefighters were killed.

In February, 2013 John N. Maclean announced that he had signed a deal to have his book about the 2006 Esperanza fire made into a movie. A screenplay is being written by Sean O’Keefe, and Jim Mickle, a well-regarded Indie director, has been signed to direct the project. Not too much is happening on it right now since Mr. Mickle is tied up making another movie.

But that could change since another wildfire film has been announced. Legendary Pictures, which bought the rights to Mr. Maclean’s book, may decide to move things along more quickly so that they can release it before a planned movie about the Yarnell Hill Fire hits theaters.

Below is an excerpt from a May 27, 2015 article in the Daily Courier:

A movie about Prescott’s fallen hotshot firefighters is still in the works, although some of the players have changed.

Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura of “Transformers” fame is in the development stage for the movie, planning the elements of the film, his publicist Arnold Robinson of Rogers and Cowan said.

Ken Nolan, screenwriter of “Black Hawk Down,” currently is writing the script, Robinson added.

“There are no actors attached to the project at this time, but discussions with talent are taking place,” Robinson said. Director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart” and “Out of the Furnace”) is no longer planning to work on the hotshot film, his spokesperson Jennifer Hillman of Creative Artists Agency said.

Hopefully production on the hotshots movie will begin late this year or early next year, Robinson said. There is no timeframe for when the film will be in theaters…

Five wildland firefighters were killed on the 2006 Esperanza Fire, and 19 died on the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chris.

Esperanza engine crew, seven years ago today

Engine 57It was seven years ago today that five U.S. Forest Service wildland firefighters died on the Esperanza fire near Cabazon, California on October 26, 2006. Killed were engine Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 44, of Idyllwild; engine operator Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; assistant engine operator Jason McKay, 27, of Phelan; and firefighter Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto. A fifth firefighter Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley, who was injured along with the other four, passed away on October 31. The five firefighters comprised the crew of a wildland engine, Engine 57, from the San Bernardino National Forest.

They were assigned to a state managed fire approximately 60 miles east of Los Angeles and were entrapped while protecting a structure. The crew and their supervisors were not aware of the location of the fire relative to the location of the firefighters. The fire overran their position.


UPDATE November 12, 2013:

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

Wildfire briefing, August 19, 2013

Preparedness Level

The National Preparedness Level is going up to the highest level of 5 effective Tuesday.

Screenplay to be written for the Esperanza Fire

An arrangement has been made to write a movie script for John N. Maclean’s book The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder, and the Agony of Engine 57. Legendary Pictures has closed a deal with Sean O’Keefe to adapt the book about the 2006 entrapment and deaths of the five firefighters who were working on U.S. Forest Service Engine 57.

We talked with Mr. Maclean in February when he signed the movie rights deal with Legendary Pictures. He told us then that while the contract had been signed, including the stipulation that he will serve as a consultant, there are many steps that have to be completed before it appears on the big screen. The producers must arrange for someone to write the screenplay, financing has to be arranged, and actors have to be signed — just to name a few. So, the first of those three important steps has begun. But many scripts never become movies, Mr. Maclean said.

The arsonist who started the fire, Raymond Oyler, was found guilty of five counts of first-degree murder, 20 counts of arson, and 17 counts of using an incendiary device to start fires. He was sentenced to death.

The firefighters who died were engine Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 44, of Idyllwild; engine operator Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; assistant engine operator Jason McKay, 27, of Phelan; firefighter Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto; and firefighter Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley.

We have an excerpt from the book in our January 21 article.

Dry lightning starts fires in California

Numerous lightning strikes, some of them without rain, started several dozen new fires in the Sierras and in southern California. On Sunday 24,681 strikes were recorded in the state, but so far firefighters have kept the fires small. Scattered mostly dry thunderstorms are predicted to continue through Monday followed by widespread thunderstorms with wetting rain in the Sierras Tuesday through Thursday.

The National Weather Service has issued a Red Flag Warning due to the possibility of dry lightning in combination with gusty winds for most of the foothills and mountains of Northern California.


There are three new articles over at Fire Aviation.

  • Tanker 910, a DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker, experienced an engine failure coming off of a drop on the Beaver Creek Fire in Idaho on Thursday, August 15.
  • Minden Air Corp has made a video available of the takeoff for the first flight test of their Tanker 46, a converted BAe-146, which occurred June 9, 2013.
  • An Air Tactical Group Supervisor (ATGS) has completed a detailed comparison of the use of a DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT) and P2V Large Air Tankers to complete the same task of creating 4.6 miles of retardant line on the Colockum Tarps Fire,

 Atlanta evacuated (not THAT Atlanta)

Little Queen Fire, August 18, 2013

Residents of Atlanta, Idaho have been ordered to evacuate by noon today, Monday, because of the 2,000-acre Little Queens Fire burning about four miles north of the town. The majority of the fire is in the Sawtooth Wilderness and Sawtooth National Forest.

The Great Basin Type 2 Team 5 (Wilde) is being reassigned to the fire.

From InciWeb, on August 17:

Jason Greenlee is the Incident Commander, “We will manage the Little Queens Fire as a long term fire. We will monitor the fire to ensure that it does not burn into Atlanta, Idaho and plan and prepare to defend the community if the fire changes direction and moves to the south”. This strategy is being used due to the shortage of resources to fight the fire due to other fires in the area.

In case you’re not familiar with Atlanta, it is 37 miles northwest of Ketchum, ID, and 23 miles northwest of the 104,000-acre Beaver Creek Fire.

John Maclean and a panel of firefighters talk about the Esperanza Fire

John Maclean's Esperanza presentation

At the Rustic Theater in Idyllwild, California on March 8, not far from where the Esperanza Fire killed the five-member crew of U.S. Forest Service engine 57, John N. Maclean talked about his new book, The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder, and the Agony of Engine 57. A video recording of the presentation is on the C-SPAN web site. It is an hour and 21 minutes long, but if you are interested in the fire, it will be worth your while.

The video, which can’t be embedded here, includes Mr. Maclean’s talk which is followed by a brief statement from Norm Walker, a former Division Chief on the San Bernardino National Forest, who discussed the three investigations of the fire and how they all fit together, and didn’t in some ways. Then there is a period for questions from the audience, all of which generated very interesting answers from Mr. Maclean and a panel of firefighters who were on the fire.

If you are put off by the first speaker’s remarks, jump to 3:40 when Mr. Maclean’s presentation begins.

Mr. Maclean allowed us to publish an excerpt from his book in January.


Thanks go out to Kelly

USFS Deputy Director of Fire and Aviation talks about pyroterrorism

Robert Baird
Robert Baird

The U.S. Forest Service’s Deputy Director of Fire and Aviation Management spoke about pyroterrorism in a keynote address at the Firehouse World conference in San Diego this week.

After serving in the Marine Corps for 25 years, mostly as a planner, Mr. Baird was appointed to his position in the Forest Service in November of 2011. While attending Marine Corps University he wrote a paper titled Pyroterrorism: The Threat of Arson Induced Forest Fires as a Terrorist Weapon, and an article on the same subject, Profiles in Pyroterrorism: Convergence of crime, terrorism and wildfire unleash as a weapon on population.

At the conference this week, according to Firehouse, Mr. Baird mentioned several incidents that could be classified as pyroterrorism, including the Japanese fire balloons during the second World War, the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, and the arson fires set by Raymond Lee Oyler, one of them being the Esperanza Fire that killed a 5-person USFS engine crew. He also referred to an article in an al Qaeda magazine that called for Western Muslims to wage war within the United States, urging them to engage in lone wolf attacks, including setting forest fires.

Below is an excerpt from the Firehouse article:

In 2004, the FBI came upon intelligence and issued an alert to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) suggesting that Al Queda had plans to start wildland fires in Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, Baird said, noting that all the material he was presenting was unclassified information and his interpretations and analysis were his own.

“I am not going to be some suit out of Washington, D.C., coming out here and telling you how to fight wildland fires,” said Baird, who added that his family in California was evacuated during the Camp Pendleton fire.