Today, wildland fire is everybody’s business, from the White House to the fireground. Wildfires have grown bigger, more intense, more destructiveand more expensive. Federal taxpayers, for example, footed most of the $16 million bill for fighting the Esperanza Fire. But the highest cost was the lives of the five-man crew of Engine 57, the first wildland engine crew ever to be wiped out by flames. They were caught in an “area ignition,” which in seconds covered three-quarters of a mile and swept the house they were defending on a dry ridge face, where human dwellings chew into previously wild and still unforgiving territory.
John Maclean, award-winning author of three previous books on wildfire disasters, spent more than five years researching the Esperanza Fire and covering the trial of Raymond Oyler. Maclean offers an insider’s second-by-second account of the fire and the capture and prosecution of Oyler, the first person ever to be found guilty of murder for setting a wildland fire.
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Excerpt from The Esperanza Fire
When Courts at last saw the second flare-up, he threw off the hose packs and began a race for his life, up toward the road. Like Mitchell before him, Courts also took a backward glance the need for a last look back seems to be embedded in the human psyche and what he saw stopped him cold: the overweight and exhausted Miller was sitting on a rock taking a breather.
“Lets get out of here!” Courts yelled.
“I’m okay here,” Miller replied.
“The hell you are!” Courts shouted. “Let’s get out of here!”
Courts resumed his mad scramble up the slope. His legs burned and turned to rubber, his breath came in shallow gasps, his throat turned cotton-dry. He kept repeating to himself, as he later told fire investigators, “I’m going to make it! I’m going to make it no matter what.”
Twice more he glanced back and saw Miller, on his feet at last, struggling less than 20 feet behind him. The line between life and death came down to a few feet, a few seconds. Courts stumbled as he tried to lift a leg, nearly petrified by exhaustion, over the guardrail at the roadway. Never had anything so low seemed so insurmountably high. He managed to crawl over the guardrail, but his legs failed him and he collapsed in a heap. When he recovered enough to rise, he stumbled back to the guardrail and looked down for Miller. As Courts peered into the abyss, the fire roared “and a large mass of smoke, ashes, and heat” smacked him in the face. Barely able to breathe, he lurched across the highway to the partial protection of a cutbank and fell to the ground. He pulled his fire shirt over his head and put his face in the dirt, trying to suck life from the thin layer of oxygen at ground level. He stayed like that for long minutes, tucked against the cutbank, his lungs aching and his breath coming in snatches.
When the worst had passed, he got to his feet, walked back to the guardrail, and, eyes smarting, tried to see through the smoke. After a few seconds he made out a human form about 10 yards below him. It was Miller, flat on his back, with his clothes on fire.