Fifth firefighter dies of burns
Hours after firefighter Pablo Cerda on Tuesday became the fifth and final member of a U.S. Forest Service crew to die after they were overrun by an out-of-control wildfire near Palm Springs, authorities said they arrested a suspect in connection with previous blazes in the San Gorgonio Pass area, and named him a “person of interest” in last week’s deadly fire.
Cerda, 23, fought to survive for six days at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton before succumbing at 5:08 p.m. to burns over 90% of his body. He lived in Fountain Valley, where he cared for his father, and was in his second season with the Forest Service.
“Today more sadness is added to our almost unbearable grief in the hearts of the Forest Service and all the fire service community,” Jeanne Wade-Evans, San Bernardino National Forest supervisor, said Tuesday night.
Investigators continued working with more than 300 tips called in to an arson hotline since the fire began early Thursday.
Authorities said they had questioned several people about the cause of the deadly Riverside County wildfire, known as the Esperanza fire, and that they had identified at least “two persons of interest.”
Authorities disclosed the name of only one: Raymond Lee Oyler, 37, a Beaumont resident, who was arrested at 3 p.m. Tuesday by the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department on two counts of arson in connection with wildfires in June in the San Gorgonio Pass area.
In a terse news release issued Tuesday night, sheriff’s officials said they interviewed Oyler on Friday and served a search warrant on his home Monday.
A sheriff’s spokesman said no other information would be released Tuesday.
Although authorities didn’t indicate which fires Oyler was charged with setting, Riverside and San Bernardino counties were hit with a rash of more than 40 small, suspicious fires in May and the first half of June. One such fire in mid-June broke out in Cabazon, burning 10 acres near the intersection of Esperanza Avenue and Broadway, not far from the Esperanza blaze.
Oyler could not be reached for comment.
The current, wind-fed Esperanza wildfire raced through the dry foothills, killing five firefighters and charring more than 40,000 acres at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains before being contained Monday. The blaze destroyed 34 homes.
A Cabazon man who lives a quarter-mile from where the fire began told The Times on Tuesday that authorities had questioned him, but that he was “100% innocent.”
William “Billy” Hutson, 28, said that during questioning Monday, investigators accused him of setting the fire. Police also have searched his home, confiscating his computer, he said.
Hutson served jail time in Texas for a 1998 arson conviction for burning a neighbor’s mobile home, according to records from the Texas Department of Public Safety and a spokesman for the Vidor, Texas, Police Department.
“I was young and stupid,” Hutson said in an interview at a restaurant near his house. “I was a kid. I was young. Every kid likes to see the fire. I messed up -- yeah -- and I’ve paid my debt to society.”
The night the Esperanza fire began, Hutson said, he was with friends at his house and then went for a drive before dropping off a friend in Banning.
The fire was already racing up the mountainside as the group drove home on the freeway, Hutson said.
Hutson said he failed several polygraph tests administered by federal agents during questioning Monday. He said he had become nervous thinking about his criminal record, and has volunteered to take another test.
“When I get worked up, it’s real hard,” he said. “I get real shaky.”
On Tuesday, television news crews camped outside Hutson’s modest pink house in Cabazon, and he said his family from Texas called to say they had seen him on national television.
More than 50 investigators from the Sheriff’s Department, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are working on the case.
Those include two BATF profilers and a polygraph examiner, said bureau spokeswoman Susan Rachel.
Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Earl Quinata emphasized that no arrests had been made for the Esperanza fire, and that the investigation was ongoing.
Veteran arson investigator Brad Hamil called arson “about the hardest crime there is to crack in a whole system of crimes.”
“It’s against the law to carry, say, tools that would be used in a burglary. But it certainly isn’t against the law to carry a cigarette lighter or a box of matches,” said Hamil, who investigated arson fires for 25 years for the San Bernardino City Fire Department and is not involved in the Esperanza fire case.
What might give investigators an edge on the Esperanza fire is the $550,000 reward being offered for information leading to an arrest and conviction, he said.
“Money really makes the difference,” Hamil said. “If anybody thinks their brother did it, you’re going to get a call. Everybody’s fishing.”
Along with Cerda, the U.S. Forest Service firefighters killed in the blaze were Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, the team’s captain; Jason McKay, 27, of Phelan; Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; and Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto.
Cerda realized he wanted to be a firefighter while a student at Los Amigos High School in Fountain Valley, teachers and neighbors said last week. After graduating from high school, Cerda attended the Riverside Community College Fire Academy.
Dev Gnadeve, medical director and chief of surgery for the Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, said the family declined to have additional surgery performed on Cerda, who had been on life support since he suffered the burns Thursday.
They were by Cerda’s bedside when he died, Gnadeve said.
“He was a great fighter,” Gnadeve said. “But even if Pablo had a very small chance of making it, we weren’t sure of what kind of quality of life he was going to have.”
Seven Forest Service firefighters stood in front of a lime green firetruck outside the medical center with their eyes glistening and hands crossed as the death was announced.
“It doesn’t matter what station you worked in,” said firefighter Travis Thogmartin, 28. “At Forest Service, we are all brothers.”
A public memorial service for the fallen firefighters is scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday at the Hyundai Pavilion in Devore.
Fire officials will hold a community meeting with fire victims from Twin Pines and Poppet Flats near Banning today to provide information on county, state and federal relief efforts. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the Silent Valley Club, 48305 Poppet Flats Road.
Times staff writer Stuart Silverstein contributed to this report.