Risky Decisions Contributed to Esperanza Blaze Deaths

LOS ANGELES --

Risky decisions to protect buildings may have contributed to the deaths of five U.S. Forest Service firefighters battling an arson wildfire last year, according to the findings of an investigation released Tuesday.

"The human elements are critical factors in the evaluation of this investigation," said the report on the so-called Esperanza Fire. "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."

Forest Service Chief Forester Gail Kimbell said at a news conference Tuesday that two factors led to the tragedy.

"There was a loss of situational awareness concerning the dangers associated with potential fire behavior ... while in a complex urban wildland situation," Kimbell said.

Decisions by command officers and supervisors to try to protect buildings also were a factor, Kimbell said.

"They underestimated, accepted or misjudged the risk to firefighter safety," Kimbell said.

Officials with the Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection refused to answer questions about the contents of the report or to elaborate on the findings.

The Esperanza Fire was ignited Oct. 26 and was spread by fierce Santa Ana winds. The five firefighters and their engine were overrun by flames as they tried to protect a house in a mountain community about 90 miles east of Los Angeles. The blaze eventually charred more than 60 square miles.

Firefighters Jason McKay, 27; Jess McLean, 27; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20; Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, and Pablo Cerda, 23, were overrun by flames on Oct. 26 while protecting a home in Twin Pines.

Their families were shown the report before its release, said Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes.

Raymond Lee Oyler, a 36-year-old auto mechanic, is charged with five counts of first-degree murder, 17 counts of using an incendiary device and 23 counts of arson between May 16 and Oct. 26, 2006.

Gary Helmer, the Forest Service's safety and occupational health manager, said the chief forester will now review a safety action plan developed from the investigation's findings and could sign it as early as this week.

Asked whether the plan will include a recommendation not to protect structures, Helmer replied: "Every situation is different. We're not going to carte blanche say we're not going to do structural fire protection."

Al Matecko, Forest Service public and legislative affairs representative for the Pacific Northwest region, said a copy of the report was given to the Riverside County district attorney Tuesday. He said state law prevented him from commenting on the report as long as a criminal case was pending.

"We don't want to prejudice the court case in any way, shape, or form. We don't want to do that," he said.

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