Today, wildland fire is everybody's business, from the White House to the fireground. Wildfires have grown bigger, more intense, more destructive—and 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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When a jury returns to a packed courtroom to announce its verdict in a capital murder case, every noise, even a scraped chair or an opening door, resonates like a high-tension cable snap. Spectators stop rustling in their seats; prosecution and defense lawyers and the accused stiffen into attitudes of wariness; the judge looks on owlishly; even the court bailiff, who experiences too much of humanity's dark side, often stands to attention for this moment. In that atmosphere of heightened expectation, the jury entered a Riverside County Superior Court room in southern California to render a decision in the trial of Raymond Oyler, charged with setting the Esperanza Fire of 2006, which killed a five-man Forest Service engine crew sent to fight the blaze.
The jurors cast quick glances around the courtroom, avoiding eye contact, and tried to wipe any hint of the verdict off their faces as they took their seats. For more than a week of deliberations, they had been "semisequestered," and sheriff's deputies had escorted them to and from the jury room. The special security measures had been put in place by Judge W. Charles Morgan, who had mysteriously stopped the trial during the final arguments, closed the courtroom, and called in the jurors one by one to question them. Speculation of a mistrial ran rampant when news leaked of an attempt at jury tampering. But the crisis passed, the closing arguments concluded, and the jury retired.
As the jurors found their chairs, an extra half dozen armed sheriff's deputies stood by the defense table where Oyler, in a sober gray suit, sat unshackled. Sheriff's Deputy David Holland, the court bailiff, warned the spectators against any outburst. "If your emotions get the best of you, please leave the courtroom," he said.
The spectators, some of whom had driven many miles and arrived breathless at the last minute, divided like families at a rivalrous church wedding. Firefighters, relatives of the victims, and their supporters filled pew-like benches on the side of the courtroom nearest the jury box. The fire people looked scrubbed, upright, and unspeakably sad. On the other side of the courtroom sat Oyler's family and friends from southern California's Banning Pass, where the 38-year-old auto mechanic had lived and where the fatal wildfire had burned. They were scattered along a couple of rear benches as far from the jury as possible. Several had napped, nodded, and cast hostile glances during the trial, but there had been no unruly behavior, at least not in the courtroom.
The Oyler clan appeared both hopeful and apprehensive. They had reason for a glimmer of optimism, for the trial had been lengthy and complex. The prosecution had presented no physical evidence to tie Oyler absolutely to the Esperanza Fire. Instead, prosecutors had sought to prove that a string of twenty-three arson fires in the Banning Pass beginning in the spring of 2006 had been the work of one person, and that that person was Raymond Oyler. The ignition devices and locations of the fires showed unmistakable similarities, the prosecutors argued, and followed a classic evolutionary pattern for serial arson, becoming more efficient and destructive over time, and finally deadly. DNA matches, witnesses, tire tracks, and surveillance camera images linked Oyler to several previous fires in the series, and the Esperanza Fire followed the general pattern: the ignition device, for example, was made, like many of the others, with stick matches bound to a Marlboro cigarette, his favorite brand, by a bluish-green rubber band. The prosecution's case depended on the jury understanding how the totality of evidence formed a pattern that had been engineered, as the chief prosecutor Michael Hestrin charged, by a lone "man bent on destruction." Adding to the suspense, the legal stakes in the trial were the highest they had ever been in a case like this one: to this date, no one had ever been convicted of murder for setting a wildland fire, even though arson wildfires had caused many deaths and hundreds of arsonists had been caught and punished with fines and prison time.
The jurors, eight women and four men, had fought a long, hard battle to reach a verdict. "I didn't want to give it away when we walked in, but it was hard to keep an expression off your face," said one juror. The foreman, Don Estep, handed the court bailiff a thick sheaf of verdict forms. As Judge Morgan read through them and minutes ticked by, the tension grew almost unbearable.
"It felt almost like we were in church or at a funeral while the judge read the verdict forms," said the aunt of one of the victims.
The case against Oyler proceeded with what for the legal system was nearly the speed of light. After the fire, Oyler was identified as a possible suspect in less than forty-eight hours, arrested in less than a week, and tried in less than three years. This happened even though Oyler had initially been dismissed as a suspect by nearly everyone — Riverside County homicide detectives, the FBI, and others. "We almost didn't investigate him," said Scott Michaels, a Riverside County homicide detective who pursued Oyler despite opposition. Senior investigators weren't impressed with the Oyler connection, not at first, because Oyler was linked only to a previous fire, days earlier, and he did not fit the standard FBI profiles for a serial arsonist. Overwhelmed by a flood of leads about the Esperanza Fire and concentrating on more likely suspects, Michaels' superiors ordered him to work on leads directly related to the Esperanza Fire. After a shouting match with his sergeant, Michaels kept after Oyler, at the risk of his career. His vindication came in dramatic fashion during a meeting of quarreling law enforcement officials, with news that stunned everyone and sent Michaels off to make an arrest.
The mass effort to find the Esperanza Fire arsonist may have followed a choppy course, but it did not come about by chance. Everyone behaves differently when fires break out in the zone where wildfire and civilization overlap: the citizenry becomes aroused, firefighters fight harder, and governmental officials and politicians take notice and intervene. When a serial arsonist is suspected of setting a fire in this critical zone, the wildland–urban interface, the entire community goes to severe threat alert. In short, Michaels was not alone in his passion for the hunt. Southern California is the nation's top hot spot for wildfire and one of the top three in the world, along with Australia and southern France. Sensitivity to any wildfire runs high, and arson is a regional scourge. Deaths by wildland fire occur with unhappy frequency, but never before had an entire Forest Service engine crew been wiped out by flames, not in southern California or anywhere else.
Though Detective Michaels made the first link to Oyler, his investigation was based on evidence painstakingly gathered by the state's Cal Fire arson squad. As part of a six-month-long investigation, from the time an arson series had broken out in May of that year, the squad had placed surveillance cameras around the Banning Pass in areas prone to fire. One of the cameras, mounted on a service pole along a roadway, captured the license plate number of a vehicle at the site of an arson fire four days before the Esperanza Fire. The car was Oyler's, though he had never bothered to register it with the state. Michaels, assigned to the Esperanza case on the fatal morning, backtracked the vehicle to a salvage shop and thentraced it to Oyler in a series of quick, dogged, and lucky steps. "Investigations don't happen like this," Michaels said later. "They don't go this fast; you don't have arguments with police commanders and do cliché stuff like that. It was like being in a movie." Adding to the sense of unreality, Oyler at one point admitted that he had set the Esperanza Fire, though prosecutors decided the confession was too dodgy to use in court.
District Attorney Rod Pacheco decided to seek the death penalty after a review of the case by thirty regional law enforcement officials. A capital case changes things; if a jury found Oyler guilty of murder, the same jury would sit for a second proceeding and make a separate decision on whether to recommend the ultimate penalty. Prior to the Oyler trial, the closest the legal system had come to a murder conviction for a wildland fire involved John Orr, a longtime fire investigator and captain for southern California's Glendale Fire Department, located less than one hundred miles from the site of the Esperanza Fire in the heart of southern California's fire ground.
Orr had been convicted of four counts of murder, with victims including a grandmother and a 2-year-old child, for setting a fire in 1984 in a home improvement store in South Pasadena. After a complex investigation, he came to trial fourteen years later, in 1998. One investigator thought Orr had set more than two thousand fires, many of them wildland fires. The jury that found him guilty failed to agree on the death penalty, and Orr was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. Orr, a would-be thriller writer, had helped seal his fate by writing a book, Points of Origin, based on the home improvement store fire, which he had helped investigate and for which he had won much acclaim because he insisted, despite opposition, that it was arson. Unlike Oyler, Orr almost perfectly fit a standard arsonist profile: the hero firefighter who sets fires to make himself famous. In his book, which figured at his trial, Orr addressed the question that haunted his and Oyler's trials: What sort of a person would do this? At one point Orr described the reaction of his fictional arsonist, Aaron, who bears many similarities to Orr, to the havoc he had created. "Aaron had already killed five people in one of his fires. He rationalized the deaths as he did everything. It wasn't his fault. The people just acted stupidly and their deaths had nothing to do with the fact that he set the fire. They just reacted too slowly. 'It was too bad about the baby, but, shit, it wasn't my fault.'"
* * *
WILDFIRE ARSON, BOTH deliberate and unintentional, has grown in virtual lockstep with the expansion of the wildland–urban interface, though reliable figures about the impact of arson are hard to come by; for one thing, it's not always easy to identify arson. California is a special case on account of the density of population in fire-prone areas, the annual Santa Ana winds, and a large number of busy arsonists. (At the time of Oyler's arrest, California's state registry of convicted arsonists numbered 3,800; only two other states, Montana and Illinois, maintain such a registry.) Consequently, the Golden State keeps its own statistical records for arson-started fires. In California, 7 to 12 percent of wildfires in recent years have been identified as arson, so an average of 10 percent is a reasonable estimate. Nationally, the picture varies widely from state to state. In some southern states where lightning is rare and timber plantations plentiful, arson may account for 90 percent or more of wildfires; in some other states, arson is a negligible problem. Nationwide, the number of wildfires ranges from about 100,000 to 120,000 a year. Extrapolating California's 10 percent figure, arson may account for ten thousand to twelve thousand wildfires a year nationwide. About 10 percent of wildfire arson cases are prosecuted, according to veteran fire investigators and the few available statistics. But serial arson is common, and one prosecution may account for many fires, as happened in the Orr and Oyler cases. The problem is deadly serious: in California alone in the first decade of the new century, thirteen people died from confirmed or suspected arson wildfires.
Wildfire arson convictions don't come easy. Prosecutors say that arson is the second most difficult crime to prove, behind only adult sexual assault. Typically with wildfire arson, the crime scene is empty country, witnesses are few or nonexistent, and the arsonist may be long gone when flames spring to life. The simple ignition devices are often destroyed; a single match in light grass can start a blaze that can quickly spread into a major fire. Evidence can be inadvertantly obliterated by firefighters hosing water, digging fire line, or driving fire engines. Deliberate arson is the crime of a coward: the perpetrator almost never comes face to face with a victim. The wildland arsonist's motives are harder to fathom than those of his urban counterparts, who often ignite buildings to collect insurance or to kill or injure a particular person.
For many decades, deliberately set wildland fires were treated more as a nuisance than as a major crime. Rural communities did not merely tolerate arson in their backyards; they often practiced it as a cultural prerogative, to clear brush and stimulate grazing land or wildlife forage, or to create jobs on fire crews. The problem became especially common in the wake of the Big Burn of 1910, which scorched more than 3 million acres in Idaho and Montana, killed an estimated eighty-seven people, and ushered in the age of mandatory federal fire suppression, the effects of which can be seen today in millions of acres of overgrown forest and brush country. Local communities revolted when deprived of their long-standing practice of deliberate burning. Things got so bad in California by the middle of the twentieth century that the Forest Service, calling the problem the Battle of the Brush, sent an undercover investigator to sample local attitudes. "Every person to whom I talked was quite elated over the fact that the fires of 1944 would improve the deer hunting and help the cattleman," reported the investigator, who traveled the Mendocino area in northern California. A local might favor brush burning for many reasons, the investigator reported, among them "a gripe against the Forest Service policy of no burning during fire season, or a conservation policy which prevents him from doing things 'the way Granddad did.'"
A few years later, in 1953, a ne'er-do-well young man, the son of a respected Forest Service engineer, ignited a blaze in the same area, on the Mendocino National Forest, to get work on a fire crew. A single match was all it took to spark the Rattlesnake Fire of 1953, which killed fifteen firefighters and became a stark example — one of the worst in history — of tolerance for wildfire arson. The arsonist, Stanford Pattan, did get a job as a fire camp cook, but he raised the suspicions of an arson detective as he served the lawman breakfast at the camp. His arrest and confession followed shortly thereafter.
That was a different age; a grand jury refused to indict Pattan for second-degree murder. He had not intended to kill anyone, people said, and make-work or "job fires," as they are still known, were part of country living, typically taking their toll in unoccupied forest where no one got hurt. Pattan confessed only after he was confronted with photos of the dead. "The pictures certainly helped break him," said the sheriff who arrested him. "When he saw those, I believe he realized for the first time what he had done." When I traced down and interviewed Pattan almost a half century later for the book Fire and Ashes, he acknowledged that the photos had left him shaken. He had never meant to harm anyone, he said, and had been distraught because he couldn't find a job and his wife had left him. Pattan ultimately was charged with two counts of "willful burning" and served just three years in San Quentin State Prison. The Rattlesnake Fire set a lasting mark: those fifteen deaths remain the greatest loss of firefighter life on a wildfire since that year.
During the Oyler trial, photographs of the dead once again would trigger a turn of events, though this time the effect would be on the jurors.
As the growth of the wildland–urban interface has exposed a more urban-oriented population to wildfire, penalties for arson have ratcheted upward. Here, too, precise and instructive figures are hard to come by, though anecdotes abound. Federal surveys carried out in the first decade of the new century, spurred by concern about the mounting toll in lives and property from wildland fire, reported that about 9 percent of the land area in the United States, containing 39 percent of all houses, or 44.8 million units, can be classified as part of the wildland–urban interface. To no one's surprise, California has the highest number of interface housing units, about 5.1 million. But the eastern United States, which has a minor wildland fire problem compared with the West but a denser population, has the most interface land; in Connecticut, for example, 72 percent of the land is classified as interface. A few figures are both precise and instructive: nationwide in 2003, a bad fire year, 4,200 residences were destroyed, $2 billion worth of damage was done, and thirteen firefighter lives were lost in wildland fires. In addition, the calamitous "fire siege" that swept southern California that year took the lives of twenty-three civilians, most of them residents who waited too long to evacuate their homes, and one firefighter.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Esperanza Fire"
Copyright © 2013 John N. MacClean.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
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