Three years have passed since the Esperanza Fire raged through Riverside County, killing five U.S. Forest Service firefighters, but the federal government still has not finished its investigation into the blaze.
In the meantime, Beaumont mechanic Raymond Lee Oyler has been arrested, tried and sentenced to death for starting the fire in October 2006.
And two other federal investigations have long been completed.
But the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Office of Inspector General is still compiling the results of its investigation, one that could lead to criminal charges for some firefighters who supervised the battle against the Esperanza Fire.
In March testimony before Congress, Inspector General Phyllis Fong said she expected to issue the report by the end of that month. Now, federal officials say they hope to finish their report by the end of November. But that deadline is not firm.
Investigators are actively working to finish their work, said Paul Feeney, spokesman for the inspector general’s office.
But they have been slowed by competing responsibilities, as well as a decision made early in the process to hold back from some parts of their probe so as not to interfere with another investigation of the fire.
“Our overriding objective has been to conduct a good, independent investigation as opposed to focusing on any particular release date,” Feeney said in a written statement.
‘we are surprised’
The delays have caused anxiety and frustration for both the firefighters who fought the 43,000-acre blaze and the families of those killed.
“We’re just waiting. We are surprised it has taken so long,” said Vivian Najera, aunt of firefighter Daniel Hoover-Najera, who was killed in the fire. “All of us have questioned when it is coming out, and we haven’t got any answers. We are anxious to find out what it has to say.”
The investigation is just the third of its kind and was required by a 2002 law mandating the office investigate deaths of federal firefighters killed in burnovers or entrapments.
The five killed in the Esperanza Fire were overrun by flames as they fought to save a lone, unoccupied home near Cabazon.
The two previous investigations led to charges against two fire commanders in the deaths of federal firefighters in Washington state and Idaho.
The law was created after the 2001 Thirtymile Fire in Washington state, which killed four firefighters. U.S. Forest Service supervisor Ellreese N. Daniels was indicted on charges of involuntary manslaughter and lying to investigators.
After the 2003 Cramer Fire in Idaho, in which two firefighters died, the U.S. attorney’s office filed charges against that fire’s incident commander, Alan Hackett, who was found to have been negligent in his management of the blaze.
However, Cal Fire’s jurisdiction over the Esperanza Fire is a key difference from the previous two cases and one that presented a “unique challenge” to federal investigators,” Fong told members of the House Appropriation Committee during a March 11 briefing.
“The fire occurred on non-federal land, and (the Forest Service) was assisting in the suppression effort as part of a cooperative agreement with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, an entity for which OIG has no oversight jurisdiction,” Fong said.
That question of jurisdiction and the relationship between state and federal agencies battling the same blaze is certain to be addressed in the report. The firefighting community, both locally and nationally, has long awaited the investigation’s findings, said Casey Judd, business manager for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, which represents federal firefighters around the country.
“It’s typical of the agency — typically frustrating,” Judd said. “I can’t for the life of me see why the OIG can’t get this out.”
In the aftermath of the fire, the U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration and a joint state-federal task force launched separate investigations of the fire. Not wishing to obstruct the latter, OIG investigators delayed their interviews, Feeney said Thursday.
“This was done to ensure that OIG’s inquiry did not interfere with theirs,” he said. “That decision significantly pushed back the start of OIG’s primary investigative work.”
Both of the earlier inquiries found fire personnel took unnecessary risks.
Killed in the fire were Engine 57 Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, of Idyllwild; Jason McKay, 27, of Apple Valley; Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley; and Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto.
Oyler was convicted of five counts of murder for setting the blaze and was sentenced in June to die.
Relatives of the firefighters and others will gather Monday at 11:30 a.m. at the Cabazon Fire Station, 50382 Irene St. in Cabazon, to memorialize the third anniversary of the fire and the deaths of the five men.
Staff writer Richard K. De Atley contributed to this report.