Fifteen years ago Tuesday, five U.S. Forest Service firefighters perished battling a monster wildfire near Idyllwild set by a serial arsonist who had ignited multiple blazes in the area and was ultimately sentenced to death.
On Oct. 26, 2006, the crew of U.S.F.S. Engine 57 was fatally injured while attempting to deploy around a house on a hillside north of Twin Pines to protect it from the Esperanza wildfire.
The catastrophic blaze consumed roughly 41,000 acres, destroying 34 homes and other buildings, as well as killing a large amount of livestock. The fire also damaged a highway before it was stopped four days later.
Capt. Mark Allen Loutzenhiser, 43, and firefighters Pablo Cerda, 24, Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, Jason Robert McKay, 27, and Jess Edward McLean, 27, were victims of the conflagration, which started at the hands of former Beaumont mechanic Raymond Lee Oyler.
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In March 2009, Oyler, now 51, was convicted of five counts of first-degree murder and numerous counts of arson and possessing incendiary devices, stemming from two-dozen other fires he ignited in the months leading up to the Esperanza blaze.
A four-man, eight-woman jury recommended a death sentence following the penalty phase of the defendant's trial. Riverside County Superior Court Judge W. Charles Morgan stood by the recommendation in June 2009, and Oyler has been on California's Death Row at San Quentin State Prison ever since.
According to trial testimony, the Esperanza fire was lit shortly after 1 a.m. on Oct. 26, 2006, near Esperanza Avenue and Almond Way in Cabazon. At its peak, the wildfire traveled at 30 mph, with flames as high as 70 feet, burning at 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit.
McKay, McLean and Hoover-Najera died within minutes of the fiery tidal wave crashing into them as they scrambled to establish defensive positions on Gorgonio View Road in Twin Pines, where they had deployed to protect a house with a pool from which the men intended to draw water.
Loutzenhiser was alive for several hours after being transported off the hillside. Cerda was kept on life-support for five days before family members decided to take him off. He had burns to more than 90% of his body, and his lungs and other organs had been singed.
The man who prosecuted Oyler, now-District Attorney Mike Hestrin, described him at the time as "obsessed with fire and a fascination with starting a fire and watching it burn.''
“The enormous loss of what happened is something I carry with me,'' Hestrin told City News Service with regard to the anniversary date. "It was a tough case for the community and the families involved. Those five lives were cut short. I still think about the fact that those firemen went up into that inferno, and everybody else was going down to get away. It's such a symbol of how they were protectors, and they paid with their lives.''
Testimony showed Oyler had developed a technique of binding stick matches together with rubber bands, affixing debris to the devices, which he would fling into brushy places to trigger fires.
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On the day of the Esperanza wildfire, a fierce Santa Ana windstorm had erupted, providing ideal conditions for fueling and fanning flames.
Hestrin said Oyler wanted to ``see that mountain burn'' when he lit the blaze.
Oyler's case remains on appeal, and the convicted murderer's attorney, Michael Clough, has been in the discovery process for the last five years. The appellant has called into question many links in the chain that culminated in Oyler's conviction, beginning with the competence of his attorney.
Clough wrote in an appellate brief filed in 2016 that there are numerous aspects of the case that deserve a second look, including the possibility of another arsonist behind most of the fires for which his client was convicted. There have been no hearings in the case since 2019.
“The Oyler case is what it is,'' Hestrin told CNS. ``One way or another, he's going to have to live with it and face whatever consequences that eventually come to him.''
Oyler is one of roughly 700 prisoners on Death Row.