Reviewed in the United States on June 21, 2013
June 21, 2013
Thoughts on Esperanza
The wildland fire community owes John Maclean a debt of gratitude for shining a bright light on the crew of Engine 57 and its tragic encounter with the arson-caused Esperanza Fire on October 26, 2006. This incident marked the first time in wildland fire history that an entire 5-person engine crew died on a wildfire. First and foremost, John honors the memory of the five firefighters--Mark Loutzenhizer, Daniel Najera, Pablo Cerda, Jess McLean, and Jason McKay -and recounts the impact of their loss on family, friends, and other firefighters; he carefully traces the series of events that lead up to the entrapment of Engine 57 crew members; and he reports in compelling detail all aspects of the arson investigation leading to the arrest, conviction, and sentencing of the arsonist. The story unfolds like a "page-turner of a detective novel", what with a preternatural hunch, DNA, surveillance cameras, crime scene protection, and careful lab work. A second first for the Esperanza Fire is that it marked the first time ever that a wildland fire arsonist was sentenced to the death penalty for murder.
In Montana we travel over Lolo Pass to get to Idaho, travel over Rogers Pass to get to Great Falls, travel over McDonald Pass to get to Helena.
In the Esperanza Fire book we travel over the Banning Pass to arrive at various locations within or near the fire, as in this quote"...that looms above the Banning Pass." Growing up in Ohio, I have long been conditioned to the idea of The Ohio State University, calling special attention to this institution of higher education and singling it out for special recognition. The Banning Pass in the text always caused me to sit up and take notice in a similar fashion. Certainly the geography around the Banning Pass set this area up for special recognition during the duration of the Esperanza Fire. A small point, but an issue that always created a special awareness for me each time the Banning Pass came up.
From the book: Attorney McDonald for the defense asked Battalion Chief Jeff Brand: "Should anyone have been sent to a place like the Octagon House, marked by a red warning dot on a fire map, unoccupied, and very difficult to defend?"
"Yes," Brand said. "Honestly, about every house out there could have been a red dot under those conditions. We still are going to send resources out to defend homes. There are a lot of homes we saved that day." (With hindsight one can ask, "but at what cost?")
As John Maclean says in the book, hindsight is always 20-20 when one looks back at a fatality fire. As he is emphasizing, one needs to use some caution to avoid hindsight pitfalls.
But one can look at the forecast conditions for the Esperanza Fire that started at 0111 on October 26, 2006 (strangely, 3 years exactly from the death toll that mounted on the Cedar and Paradise Fires in San Diego County on that same date in 2003, also due to drought and Santa Ana winds): steep slopes rising from 1100 feet to 4000 feet above the ignition point, preceding months of hot weather and drought, the world's most flammable vegetation, chaparral, along with Australia's eucalyptus, and a Santa Ana wind that arrived on schedule. Given those conditions, and considering fires like Cramer in Idaho and others, one needs to carefully assess a decision to insert firefighters above a fire spreading uphill below them.
I will not succumb to a tendency to say "Hell no, just don't go!" I will cite, instead, an experience from the Dude Fire Staff Ride (Fire Management Today article titled "Why Don't We Just Leave the Fireline?"). I was scheduled to give the closing on the last morning of this Fire Behavior Conference, using 30-some slides to document various fire behavior issues. But the day before, at the last Staff Ride Stand, Dave LaTour presented a moving account about how it felt to be at the shelter deployment site while six people died around him. As he finished and I started down the trail, the first thought that crossed my mind is "why don't we just leave the line when conditions are aligned against us?" The next thought was "remove half the slides before the next day's presentation." And the next morning I did something I had never done before or since: I told the audience that we had no time for any slides. We would not see a single slide because there were more important things to talk about. We talked about leaving the fireline when the planets are aligned against us. And we thought about the six people who might still be with us, if we had placed more emphasis on human lives rather than on human homes.
Again, thank you, John Maclean, for taking so much time to tell this story in-depth and with great skill. It was such a gripping story that I did something that rarely happens to me. I started remembering dreams for several nights in a row. I rarely remember a dream, so this was unusual behavior. One dream in particular woke me up in the middle of the night, because I thought I was about to die. I was traveling in a large bus on a road along a sheer drop-off of several hundred feet. The bus must have had an exterior video system for safety purposes, because I was able to clearly see the outside dual tire move off the road and into thin air. If the bus swerved left, I would be headed for the Octagon House and death. If the bus swerved right, I would be headed for the Tile House and life. I anxiously waited for the inside tire to follow suit, continuing the leftward track over the precipice, but the dual tires tracked back to the right and onto the road just before I woke up.
Near the end of the book John calls attention to an honorary plaque at the memorial site: : "...the plaque named the five men, but in the rush to make the anniversary deadline, Daniel Najera's name was misspelled Najara. Even people who care deeply about their work can make mistakes, which must be one of the more enduring lessons of the Esperanza Fire."
Enduring indeed, John. May your book and its lessons help guide thoughtful decisions in the future on whether to stay and defend homes in the wildland-urban interface when critical fire behavior conditions prevail, or withdraw until conditions improve.