The Fiery Touch

Wildfire arsonists burn forests, grasslands and houses -- and kill people. Now one faces the death penalty.

  • Paul Lachine
  • Paul Lachine
  • Paul Lachine
  • Paul Lachine
  • Paul Lachine
 

Page 2

As dawn broke, a Santa Ana wind, blowing hot air from the desert toward the sea, struck the flames and turned a fire that had been behaving normally into an unpredictable and deadly creature. The wind poured into a gulch that ran straight as the flight of an artillery shell up from the floor of the pass to an eight-sided home called the Octagon House, where Engine 57's five-man crew was deployed. Small fires already were burning in the gulch, under a blanket of heavy smoke. When the blast of oxygen entered the gulch from below, the smoke at the top of the drainage, a mile and a half away, blew out like a cork. Flames and superheated gases erupted in what is called an "area ignition" -- about as close to instantaneous fire as imaginable. In five to seven seconds, the fire raced at least three-quarters of a mile and swept the Octagon House.

"It was a cauldron of fire -- there was no measurable fire progression," recalls Chris Fogle, captain of another Forest Service fire engine, who watched the ignition from nearby. "There was a solid churning, as though someone had laid down a flamethrower in the canyon. There was a simultaneous ignition over a large area. It lit up the whole place."

It would not be entirely true to say Engine 57's crew never had a chance. They had been at the site for over an hour. They had radio contact with other Forest Service engines, including Fogle's crew, which had just endured runs of fire while defending other homes. A supervisor later said he warned Engine 57's captain, Mark Loutzenhiser, that big trouble was on the way. Loutzenhiser had 20 years of experience and a reputation as a careful leader, but instead of retreating, his crew set a portable pump in a swimming pool behind the Octagon House and laid out hose lines from the pool. They apparently planned to light a backfire to meet the advancing fire front.

But once the area ignition erupted, none of their preparations made the slightest difference. Flames overran the crew with a swiftness that left no time for more hose lays, burnouts or last words -- except for one unintelligible radio transmission, the haunting cry of a never-identified young man in extreme distress. The blast of flame killed two crewmen virtually where they stood: The terribly burned bodies of Jess McLean and Jason McKay, who were both 27 and considered fire veterans, were found near the fire engine, which was parked in front of the garage. Fire investigators estimated that the heat blast there topped 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit.

Loutzenhiser, 43, and Pablo Cerda, 23, who was in his second season on Engine 57, were found on the dirt driveway, badly burned but alive. They might have been on the road or behind the house when the heat struck them; there is no way to tell. Loutzenhiser lived for a few hours, Cerda for almost a week, but neither recovered enough to speak of their ordeal. Daniel Hoover-Najara -- Vivian Najara's 20-year-old nephew, who'd been on the crew less than two weeks -- ran, stumbled or fell down a slope below Loutzenhiser and Cerda, leaving behind a trail of gear, until he was stopped by a burning tree, where his body was found. Had these three men been behind the house and jumped into the swimming pool there, investigators believe they might have lived. But who can say what choices they had, if any, in those final seconds?

It took less than a day to identify Raymond Oyler as the prime suspect, less than a week to charge him, and less than three years to bring him to trial, altogether an extraordinary achievement for the legal system. This was not by chance. Southern California is the nation's top hotspot for wildfire and one of the top three in the world, along with Australia and southern France. Sensitivity to the issue runs high. Fireline deaths happen virtually every season, but never before had an entire Forest Service engine crew been wiped out by flames, not in Southern California or anywhere else.

The speedy arrest came about after a Riverside County homicide detective, Scott Michaels, traced a Ford Taurus license plate to Oyler. A surveillance camera hidden on a utility pole had recorded the Ford at the site of another arson fire four days earlier. Michaels, assigned to the Esperanza case on the fatal morning, backtracked and quickly found the car's registered owner, who said he'd sold it to Oyler, who had failed to register the car in his own name.

The sense of heightened priority also energized the state Department of Justice, where technicians worked through the weekend analyzing evidence from previous wildfires in the arson series, none of which had been destructive enough to justify the heavy expense of DNA and other testing. Within days, the lab technicians found DNA residue on the cigarette portion of ignition devices from two of those fires. They matched it to Oyler's DNA.

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