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Maclean raises heated questions in Esperanza Fire

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During a wildfire, it takes a particular combination of low humidity, wind and dry vegetation to create what's called an "area ignition." It's a mild-sounding term that means, in effect, an explosion. In October 2006, the driest, windiest time of the year in Southern California, fire engines from the San Jacinto district responded to the Esperanza Fire above the Banning Pass, southeast of Los Angeles. The fire was started around 1 a.m by a simple device of matches wrapped around a lit cigarette. By 7 a.m., it had grown to 2,200 acres. Engine 57 was stationed around a home dubbed the Octagon House when winds hit the creek drainage below and torched off an area ignition. The five firefighters were hit by the blast of heat where they stood. The inferno destroyed the house, the fire engine and melted most of the clothing off their backs. Three of them were dead by the time responders made it to the scene. Two men, found alive, died later in a hospital.

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The death of those men is at the heart of John Maclean's The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57. But where the book begins is in a courtroom three years after the fire, where auto mechanic Raymond Oyler was found guilty of murder for setting the fire. Prosecutors successfully argued that Oyler, tied by DNA evidence to a string of arson fires in the area, was also responsible for placing the ignition device that started the Esperanza blaze. Oyler is the first person in history to be convicted of murder for arson. A jury sentenced him to execution.

Maclean (the son of Norman Maclean, by the way) worked as a Chicago Tribune reporter for 30 years, mostly stationed in Washington., D.C., and spent 15 years covering wildfires. He's already written three books about fires, and one, Fire on the Mountain, was featured in History Channel and "Dateline" documentaries. That expertise makes Esperanza an engrossing and haunting read. The book is written in a straightforward news style, which lets the inherent drama of the story really shine. Scott Michaels, a Riverside County homicide detective at the time, was largely responsible for fingering Oyler as the suspect, risking his career on the hunch. "Investigations don't happen like this," Michaels says in the book. "They don't go this fast; you don't have arguments with police commanders and do cliché stuff like that. It was like being in a movie." Indeed, much of Esperanza reads like a movie treatment, in part because of Maclean's vivid writing.

Most of Esperanza is a play-by-play of the fire itself, and how circumstances led the men of Engine 57 to their death. Maclean carefully goes over the different accounts given by other firefighters. Battalion Chief Bob Toups told Maclean that he had suggested to the captain of Engine 57 that they needed to leave the Octagon House, and that an area ignition was likely. Others say he never made that prediction, and that if he had, the crew of Engine 57 would have left. No one will ever really know what happened, but it's heartbreaking to think that a simple course of action could have saved five people.

Maclean suspends tension through the story by veering off into tangents and back history to illustrate what was happening in Esperanza. The history of firefighting is chock full of harrowing events, like the 1971 Mack II fire, in the same area as the Esperanza Fire, where an out-of-shape, hungover firefighter died when he was too slow to outrun an approaching blast of flames.

The real main character of Esperanza is fire itself. We aim to control it, but fire does what it wants to: It can be a powerful force for good, for restoring the health of forests, and an incredible force of destruction. This is what excites Maclean's imagination. He quotes one firefighter who describes a wall of flames as crashing and curling like an ocean, and later Maclean describes a photo of the Esperanza Fire where "churning flames like sinews of raw muscle broke through the smoke."

As the fire season approaches here in Montana, it's difficult to read Esperanza without considering the questions that wildfire raises. Government agencies spent years of the early 20th century quashing any fire, which allowed forests to amass tons of fuels. Developers built communities out into the sticks, creating the "wildland-urban interface." Climate change, too, is spurring droughts, that in turn mean fire seasons are only going to worsen. The point of case studies like Esperanza is, as Maclean makes clear himself, to learn from our mistakes. Firefighting is becoming an ever more complex science to keep up.

Most of the book presents the viewpoint of the firefighters, and the last few chapters detail the trial. We don't get to know too much about Oyler, the convicted arsonist, though it's not Maclean's fault. Oyler never took the stand at his own trial and has maintained his innocence in the Esperanza Fire. He's currently on death row and appealing his sentence. He's communicated with Maclean, but mostly to complain about prison. Maclean expresses some of his own opinion about fire management, but when it comes to Oyler, he only presents the facts, leaving the reader to wonder about yet more questions. What spurs a man to cause such destruction? California law says arsonists can be charged with homicide, but does that make it right to do so? Did Oyler intend to kill people? Does he deserve execution? These questions, and more, remain long after the book ends.

John Maclean signs copies of The Esperanza Fire at Fact & Fiction Sat., June 22, 11 AM to 12:30 PM.

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