The Esperanza Fire

The Esperanza Fire

Arson, Murder, and the Agony of Engine 57

eBook - 2013
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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; and the judge looks on owlishly. 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 murder for setting the Esperanza Fire of 2006, which killed a five man Forest Service engine crew sent to fight the blaze. Today, wildland fire is everybody's business, from the White House to the fireground. Wildfires have grown bigger, more intense, more destructive and more expensive. Federal taxpayers, for example, footed most of the $16 million bill for fighting the Esperanza Fire. But the highest cost was the lives of the five-man crew of Engine 57, the first wildland engine crew ever to be wiped out by flames.
Publisher: Berkeley : Counterpoint, 2013
ISBN: 9781619021488 (electronic bk.)
161902148X (electronic bk.)
9781306438667 (electronic bk.)
1306438667 (electronic bk.)
Branch Call Number: eBOOK 363.379097 MAC
Characteristics: 1 online resource (318 pages)

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d
deebitner
Aug 08, 2018

I don’t know many people who don’t love watching fire. I certainly do, when it’s controlled. But one thing I’ve never understood is setting one that completely destroys things, and with the horrible fires going on right now in the American west - especially California - it’s worth looking back at the fire that resulted in the first arson murder conviction and death penalty in California history.

The Esperanza fire was one of a series that was set by an arsonist. Even before this particular fire was set, the authorities were aware that there was an arsonist on the loose, and they were looking for him. But this fire, due to a confluence of the lay of the land and fuel availability, resulted in the deaths of five firefighters. They died a terrible death, basically roasting in a jet of flame that overcame them before they had a chance to deploy their shelters.

Part of the MacLean book reads like a true crime book, detailing the investigation and eventual arrest and conviction of the arsonist. Part of it reads like a disaster book, explaining what probably happened and how, the history of similar events, and a warning about future horrors (which appears to be coming true as I write). It was an ideal book for me. The best - and also worst - part of the whole thing is that MacLean has a gift for evoking empathy, I really felt for the families of the firefighters, and even for the family of the arsonist.

I am against the death penalty in principle. I do not think that it is an appropriate punishment and I do not think it is a deterrent. But I can fully understand why the jury came back with that decision - even if I would not have made it myself - and I hurt for the community that lost five wonderful people who also happened to be heroic firefighters. May their friends and family find peace. Certainly they are trying - I may one day visit the memorial.

Five of five stars.

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