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5 fatalities in ‘06 fire avoidable, report says

Times Staff Writers

Deadly miscalculations, unpredictable fire behavior and a misguided decision to save homes in the path of a fast-moving wildfire led to the deaths of a U.S. Forest Service crew overrun by the Riverside County fire in October, according to a report by state and federal fire officials released Tuesday.

The central causes of their deaths, the report said, were decisions by command officers and engine supervisors to protect homes at the head of the fire -- underestimating the risks to firefighter safety -- and firefighters not being fully aware of the complex and rapidly changing fire conditions around them.

The vacation home the Forest Service firefighters were trying to save, on an isolated knoll in the San Jacinto Mountains, had been classified as “non-defensible” by state fire officials in a 2002 report. That information was not communicated to the firefighters when they were sent to the remote Twin Pines community, the report found.

“A risky decision or a series of risky decisions appear to have contributed to this dangerous situation from which there was no room for error,” the report states.

At a news conference in Yucaipa, top state and federal officials refused to elaborate on the report’s findings. They said that doing so might prejudice the prosecution of the Beaumont auto mechanic charged with starting the fire and killing the five firefighters.

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Raymond Lee Oyler, 36, is accused of lighting 21 additional fires in the San Gorgonio Pass area last year. Riverside County Dist. Atty. Rod Pacheco has said he will seek the death penalty when the trial begins, probably next year.

Chief Ruben Grijalva of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said the investigation task force chose not to mention the names of any of the fire personnel whose actions were reviewed in the report.

“The purpose of this document is not to assess blame,” Grijalva said. “The purpose and focus of our investigation and report is exclusively the future safety of firefighters.”

Forest Service officials did not say whether the results of the investigation may lead to changes in how wildfires are fought, especially when it comes to saving homes in mountain or forest areas.

“Every situation is different,” said Gary Helmer, safety and occupation manager for the Forest Service. “We’re not going to carte blanche say we’re not going to do structure protection.”

Gail Kimbell, the Forest Service chief, is in the midst of a review of the agency’s tactics.

“The Forest Service is in the midst of a nationwide, independent evaluation of all aspects of our safety culture,” Kimbell said. “This is a very important thing to me from both a personal and professional standpoint. I hope I never have to meet with family members under these circumstances again.”

The release of the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection report was the culmination of a seven-month joint investigation that began the day after the Esperanza fire began.

The investigating committee found that a number of factors helped set the stage for the crew of Engine Co. 57 to become trapped, or to increase the severity of the injuries.

Among them: a deadly alliance of intense winds and steep terrain that created the firestorm that killed the firefighters; bone-dry conditions; and lack of effective communications between supervisors and firefighters.

The report also says that the engine company’s precarious perch on an isolated hill on the upslope of a mountain ravine eliminated any opportunity to escape the flames.

Though the house was “unsuitable to serve as an area of refuge,” the report says, Engine Co. 57’s captain “communicated to others that he felt secure at his location.” The crew also “did not scout out alternative escape routes,” according to the report.

Prosecutors say Oyler, who has pleaded not guilty to all charges, set the Esperanza fire Oct. 26 at 1:11 a.m. just off Esperanza Road in Cabazon, at the base of the mountains.

As Santa Ana winds stirred across the southland, the crew of Engine Co. 57, stationed in Idyllwild, were among the first to respond when state firefighters called for federal assistance.

Humidity had dropped to 5% and the heavy chaparral and manzanita were perilously dry -- providing steady fuel for the fire that had charred more than 500 acres up and over Cabazon Peak by 3 a.m.

As commanders mapped the attack in the pre-dawn hours, Engine Co. 57 was dispatched by the CDF fire battalion chief to the mountain area of Gorgonio View Road and Wonderview Road to “triage houses and ‘see what they could do,’ ” the report says.

Investigators questioned this decision: “Approximately 20 structures were dispersed along poorly marked roads and many were not defendable even under ‘normal’ conditions,” the report says.

The five firefighters stationed themselves to protect an octagonal vacation home on Gorgonio View Road, which had a pool that could provide water. A senior official from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection met with the crew shortly after 6 a.m., but there are no clear indications that they discussed the dangers in the topography.

Just before 7 a.m., a nearby engine company informed Engine Co. 57’s crew that the fire was “boiling up at the bottom down below” where gusting Santa Ana winds were pushing the fire into the ravine directly below the home where the company was stationed, the report said.

About 7 a.m., flames shot up the mountainside with such searing heat and force that they exploded into a firestorm.

The flames bore down on the firefighters, curling over and around the house where they stood, stranding them with no escape.

Three of the firefighters -- Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto; Jason McKay, 27, of Phelan; and Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont -- were killed at the scene.

Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, of Idyllwild died later that day, and Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley died five days later.

Families of the fallen firefighters met Tuesday morning with state and federal officials who presented them with an hourlong review of the report’s findings at the Yucaipa Community Center.

“They felt a little better. Another little door closed for them -- another one of the chapters with many chapters to go,” said Pat Boss, a retired U.S. Forest Service firefighter who attended the meeting. “It won’t bring their loved ones back, but it will give better understanding as to what an unusual fire this was.”

maeve.reston@latimes.com

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Sara Lin contributed to this report.


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