If you’re interested in an incredible book on how Southern California wildfires can become untamed killers in mere seconds, look no further than John MacLean’s new book “The Esperanza Fire.”
MacLean’s skill in telling the interrelated stories of arson, murder and the horrific deaths of a US Forest USFS) five-man engine crew that roared through Banning Pass is beyond superlative. I thought It would take two days to read “The Esperanza Fire.”
I was wrong, It’s such a great work, once I picked it up I couldn’t put it aside. MacLean does the best job I’ve ever seen when it comes to chronicling the ingredients of a classic Southern California fire storms. What makes this story so compelling is MacLean’s reporting on the arson/murder and incident investigations associatedwith this 2006 fire.
But most of all, MacLean doesn’t scrimp when it comes to filling out the characteristics of wild lands firefighters. It’s the character development of this book as well as the detailed reporting that establishes MacLean as the absolute leader in this category of writing.
The task of transmitting the information needed by lay people to understand the complex components of wild lands firestorms isn’t easy, yet it’s become this author’s hallmark.
The 2006 Esperanza Fire which killed five firefighters was deliberately set by an arsonist, Raymond Oyler of Banning, California. Part of the story of this fire was the trial and resulting death sentence met out in a Riverside County,CA, courtroom. The Oyler case was the first time in recent history that an arsonist has received a death sentence, despite the fact that other arson-set
fireshave resulted in the deaths of firefighters or civilians.
MacLean doesn’t spend much time on Ray Oyler’s character development. After reading this book I was left wondering what events in life turned this man into someonew ho started multiple fires. But what Maclean’s book about the Esperanza fire makes very clear is that the possibility that
fire fighters would be burned to death fighting fire never concerns an arsonist.
Some of the reporting in this book is grisly. Descriptions of the discovery of still burning fire fighters bodies are hard to read. The one scene that stands out is a radio call from the captain of another USFS engine from the Idyllwild, CA, area calling for crewmen to bring “their banjos”
(the nickname for Forest service one-gallon water canteens) and then and pouring water on their friends.
Overall, “The Esperanza Fire” is a capstone work by John MacLean. It’s a phenomenal memorial to the five USFS firefighters who perished in this fire and other wild lands firefighters who make life possible for the estimated 1.5 million Californians who live on the chaparral side of the interface between urban sprawl and incendiary manzanita patches.
I recommend this book completely and fervently hope MacLean or another author such as Joseph Wambaugh someday turn their full attention on USFS Hotshot or smoke jumper crews.—Jim Forbes, from the wilds of Escondido, CA on 03/16/2013.
Note—If the name MacLean sets off sirens, it’s because he is
the son of Norman MacLean, author of “A River Runs Through It” and the grandson
of Missoula, MTl, Presbyterian minister and master trout fisherman John Norman
MacLean. He has written two other works on wild lands fires.