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 6

When the hearing resumed, Jess McLean's older brother, Jason, managed to articulate the common rage of the survivors. Jess had been a brat, his brother said, but after their father died and Jason moved away, he stepped into the man's role in the family. Jess had been small for a firefighter but intensely dedicated -- working himself so hard that he became a hotshot sawyer, a job usually reserved for big men. Everyone, Jason said, had been able to count on Jess.

"What does his loss mean to you?" the prosecutor asked.

"The way he died pisses me off," Jason McLean said. "If my brother would have died in a fire that was started by lightning, it would have been easier to deal with. My brother got murdered, and that's something I don't know how to deal with. He should not be dead. I have a rage that I can't even explain to you. He knew the risks of his job. (But) it will never be right."

After six days of such testimony, on March 18, 2009, the jury decided promptly and unanimously recommended the death penalty. On June 5, 2009, the judge formally imposed that sentence.

The required appeals will keep the Oyler case dragging on for many years. But Oyler's prosecution has already been used as a model in another wildfire arson case. Last October, prosecutors in San Bernardino County, adjacent to Riverside County, brought murder and arson charges against Rickie Lee Fowler, saying that he set the 2003 Old Fire, which burned 91,000 acres in the L.A. area and arguably caused at least five residents' fatal heart attacks. (Fowler was already in prison on unrelated charges.)

Last September, investigators concluded that the Station Fire, which burned 160,000 acres in the L.A. area last summer and killed two firefighters, was also arson. No one has been charged in connection with that fire yet, but in the wake of Oyler, murder charges look more likely.

This year marks the centennial of the Big Burn of 1910, the most politically potent wildfire in U.S. history. The Big Burn, which scorched more than 3 million acres in Montana and Idaho and killed no fewer than 85 people, ushered in the modern era of organized firefighting. The Forest Service hierarchy, horrified at the destruction and loss of life, vowed that such a catastrophe would never happen again. All wildfires would be extinguished, it was decreed, with the federal government providing the necessary resources for the job. A century later, the resulting fuels buildup on wildlands is a familiar problem.

A host of changes have come to fire country, and today almost nothing seems the same. There are more homes and more people in harm's way, more efforts to build fire-resistant homes and questions about whether homes should be defended so intently, more social and cultural diversity that complicates everything. There are policy adjustments, more and better firefighting equipment, less tolerance for negligent burning and arson and firefighter mistakes, and much more litigation. One thing, though, has not changed. Fire itself remains elemental, wild and sometimes deadly.

The conviction of Raymond Oyler for murder would have been unthinkable a century or even a few decades ago. Swift justice will not bring any of the victims back to life, but it sends a new and unequivocal sign of community respect for those who suffer irretrievable loss while engaged in defense of lives and property. The Oyler case stands as a warning to every would-be fire starter: Tolerance for the torch has gone the way of the Old West.

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Sidebars

Some notable arson wildfire cases in the West

The worst manmade fires

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The Fiery Touch is adapted from a forthcoming book by John N. Maclean, the author of a series of books on fatal wildland fires. A former longtime Washington, D.C., correspondent for The Chicago Tribune, he divides his time between a family cabin in Montana and his home in D.C. He can be reached at http://JohnMacleanBooks.com.

This story package was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

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