Wednesday, April 28, 2010

BDF Engine 57

The paragraphs below will by my submission in this months First Due Blog Carnival. The subject for this month is "Influential Fire Reports" and is hosted by Backstep Firefighter. All of the links will be posted on the 30th, it will be some interesting reading.

When I first read the subject for this month's submission, I was initially going to give it a pass. I didn't want to get bogged down in the details of an after disaster report or the inevitable blame that gets passed out like rotten apples at Halloween. I knew the event I wanted to discuss, I have touched on it several times before, as it has had an influence on me and the way I look at things. It involves an arsonist, some firefighters and a near "perfect firestorm". In order to spare you from pages and pages of details, I am going to pare this down to what I consider the meat and potatoes of the event.

I must also add that people from both agencies involved read this blog on a regular basis. I am sorry if I offend anyone, this is just how I see it, nothing more, nothing less.


At approximately 1:00 AM on October 26, 2006 an arsonist started some dead vegetation on fire at the base of the San Jacinto mountains. Less than seven hours later, three firefighters were dead, two others were unsuccessfully fighting for their lives.

 Overview of the Esperanza Fire, taken on Oct. 26th.
Kyped from Fox News

The fire was initially in the jurisdiction of Cal-Fire, the state fire agency. It rapidly spread and units from the U.S. Forest Service - San Bernardino National Forest (BDF) and local agencies were requested to assist. BDF E57 along with several other USFS engines and a water tender (tanker for you east coasters) from a local air force base were assigned to structure protection in an interface area above and to the west of the point of origin.

 The remains of the "Octagon House" Taken Oct. 09.

BDF E57 found themselves protecting the "octagon house", a structure that was a second home and was unoccupied at the time of the event. The other BDF engines were parked at other structures in the area.

The conditions for disaster were ripe, as the weather pattern was what is known as a Santa Ana wind event was in place at the location of the fire. Single digit relative humidity, severe winds and elevated temperatures were all present at the time of the burn-over. The weather conditions were compounded by the topography, and the location of the structure that E57 was trying to protect. A natural drainage ran from E57's location down to the area of origin. In a horrific twist of fate, the wind direction was in nearly perfect alignment with this drainage, pushing the fire up the drainage. Finally, a long term drought had dried the fuel to critically low levels.

 Overview of burn-over site. Click to enlarge. Schmotograph.

 The size of the fire was estimated to be approximately 3000 acres at the time of the burn-over, the fire behavior was extreme.

As none of the E57 crew members survived the event, we will never know what went through anyone's mind or why they reacted as they did. All we know is that we lost five firefighters as a result.

The official report was produced by Cal-Fire and by the USFS. It is a massive document, 114 pages in length. It goes into all of the details and makes the usual recommendations about how this tragedy could have been avoided.

While I believe that these events should be studied and lessons should be learned, I also know that the very nature of these major wildfires, especially during the initial operational period,  prevent many of the usual recommendations from being implemented. Communications are going to be difficult, accurate intel is not going to be as accessible as we would like, sections of the 10 standard orders will be violated and the event will be loaded with the situations that shout "watch out!".

For me, it all boils down to two basic decisions, both of which turned out to be wrong. The first was the decision to send people into that area to defend those structures, the second being the decision to try to save the octagon house.

Both of those decisions were made by trained, competent professionals with years of experience. Both ultimately led to the deaths of  five firefighters. Both turned out to be disastrous.

If those people made wrong decisions, so can I. That reality troubles me. It troubles me to the point where I have made the trip down to the site of the disaster and have viewed the remains of the octagon house, the unnamed drainage and the neighboring houses. I can honestly say none of it is worth dying for.

 E57 Memorial, Alandale Forest Fire Station, Ca.
I grieve for the lost firefighters and I have great sympathy for the commanders who made the strategic and tactical decisions that led to the disaster. I am sure that they are living with their decisions and think of it every day. I hope that I never am placed in the position that they are in and I pray that the choices I make never harm anyone.

Detail of E57 memorial. Please click to enlarge.

If you would like to read the entire report, it can be found here. I recommend it, it is worth the time and effort.

 CA Hwy #243 - Esperanza Firefighters Memorial Highway

 By the way, they caught the bastard that lit started the Esperanza fire. His name is Raymond Oyler and he was convicted of five counts of murder. He is currently on death row, awaiting his date with the needle. As this crime occurred in California and under the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, he will likely die of natural causes before his appeals run out and he is executed. That is a switch I would gladly throw and not lose any sleep over it.

Stop by Backstep Firefighter on the 30th and see links to all of the other posts regarding Influential Fire Reports.

Thanks for reading,


  1. Dear Captain Schmoe,
    I have a brother-in-law who used to be in the USFS and we went riding through the outskirts of a forest fire one time, another time to view the wreckage a year later. It was perhaps reckless but most instructive.

    The public so unaware of how much training and 'weather sense' as well as terrain, the leadership involved, the use of multiple tactics and equipment. It is full of the intangible, and only some of that can be divined at the time.

    Therefore, I imagine that this round of FirstDue will be full of stories where people did the best they could and somehow it wasn't quite right.

    So experience counts, but reflection, study and sharing is what advances the field. Your field is pretty relentless about aggregating the experience. This Carnival is giving the public a look, and a chance for an interagency 'chat'. I salute you all.

    To me, as grossly imperfect as my knowledge will continue to be, it sounds as if the general bias toward protecting property got in the way. That bias is probably never going to go away in the fire service b/c of the urban nature of so much fire work.

    Your post teaches me that the way forest fires are approached should be radically different from the way a tenement fire should be, because the scale of the fire is far different. Therefore, I will understand a little more, the next time some dry forest goes up in Yellowstone or similar.

    The other question is of course the interagency question, always a chance for leadership snafus, and another area the public does not understand very well.

    I love this post and plan to read the others. I am glad they caught the arsonist. However, it does not fully answer for the deaths of those brave men. I also feel regret, perhaps a pale one compared to your own, but nonetheless sincerely.

    Very truly yours,
    Ann T.

  2. Joe, Thank you for your contribution,