John Maclean, FN ’02, award-winning author of three previous books on wildfire disasters, has written another, a book on the deadly 2006 Esperanza Fire in California.
The book will be released next January by Counterpoint Press. Maclean first visited the site of the Esperanza Fire in 2007, the spring after it occurred, and he has returned many times since. He covered the lengthy Oyler trial in Riverside, California, and he details both the trial and the fire in his book.
The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder, and the Agony of Engine 57 will be featured as the lead non-fiction title for Counterpoint Press’ 2013 winter list, according to president and editorial director Jack Shoemaker.
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 Esperanza Fire marked the first time that an entire engine crew was killed by fire, and the first time that an arsonist was successfully prosecuted for murder for setting a wildland fire. The swift capture and lengthy trial are detailed for the first time in Maclean’s book, which confronts the reader with a true villain who receives the maximum penalty for his crimes.
During the penalty phase of his trial, the judge and jury would decide whether Oyler’s conviction justified imposition of the death penalty. The older brother of one of the firefighters who was killed managed to express the rage of the survivors.
“The way he died pisses me off,” said Jason McLean. “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. It will never be right.”
After six days of such testimony, the jury unanimously recommended the death penalty.
The Esperanza Fire started on Oct. 26, 2006, in the San Jacinto Mountains above the Banning Pass; it burned 41,000 acres and destroyed dozens of homes. Forest Service Engine 57 rolled in to help defend the Twin Pines neighborhood, about 30 houses on a steep ridge face – typical wildland-urban interface, where development chews into previously wild and still unforgiving territory. The ground was bone-dry, crumbly and covered with tall chaparral.
When the fire blew up, flames and superheated gases erupted in what’s called an “area ignition,” and in just about five seconds, it raced three-quarters of a mile and swept over the house where the crew of Engine 57 had made their stand.
“It was a cauldron of fire,”recalls Chris Fogle, captain of another Forest Service fire engine. “There was a solid churning, as though someone had laid down a flamethrower in the canyon.”
Maclean’s book, The Esperanza Fire, has been more than five years in the making. He flew repeatedly to Southern California to interview firefighters who survived the fire, the families of those who were killed, and the law enforcement officers, jurors, and prosecutors who were key to the investigation and trial. Through countless interviews, stacks of reports, and repeated trips to the site of the fire, Maclean has researched and written a vivid account of the fire from the perspective of the firefighters who were on the ground when the fatal fire exploded.
In an effort to understand how someone could commit such a crime, Maclean has also maintained contact with Oyler, who is on Death Row in San Quentin State Prison.
Maclean has become well known to firefighters since the publication of his first book, Fire on the Mountain, the story of the 1994 South Canyon Fire that was featured in two documentaries by Dateline NBC and the History Channel. The book was reissued in a modern classics edition in December, 2009, by Harper Collins Perennial.
He is also the author of two other books about wildland fires, Fire and Ashes and The Thirtymile Fire.
Counterpoint Press is a California publishing house that specializes in high-quality literary works and includes on its list such authors as Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, and M.F.K.