Friday, October 27, 2006

Vaya Con Dios

Three years ago today, investigators began a search for an arsonist as the Old Fire raged out of control on its way to becoming San Bernardino County's worst blaze.

They never made an arrest.

Now, heavy-hearted investigators are faced with an eerily similar assignment as they search for the person who set the deadly Esperanza Fire. They say the suspect they're seeking likely knew exactly how quickly a small fire -- set in a strategic spot and backed by strong winds -- would spread.

As in the 91,000-acre Old Fire, an arrest might be difficult, area arson investigators said. The 19,000-acre Esperanza Fire was set in the dead of night in a remote area near Banning, about 18 miles west of Palm Springs.

Yet investigators and elected officials are bent on getting justice for the four firefighters who lost their lives Thursday when their engine was overcome by flames.

"We're hunting these people with a vengeance, and we're going to find them," Riverside County Supervisor Marion Ashley said. "Our investigators are hot on their trail."

The deceased are Mark Loutzenhiser, Jess McLean, Jason McKay, and Daniel Hoover-Najera. Critically injured is Pablo Cerda.

Mark Loutzenhiser, Engine Captain, was 44 years old and had 21 years of service. He was a certified Emergency Management Technician (EMT). He had worked previously as a hotshot crewman for the Vista Grande Hot Shots and also as a volunteer firefighter for Riverside County. He majored in fire science at Mt. San Jacinto College. He was a longtime resident of Idyllwild, Calif. where he was a great supporter and coach for the youth sports program.

Jess McLean, Fire Engine Operator, was 27 years old and had seven years of service. He had been a hotshot for three years with Vista Grande. He graduated from Banning High School in 1997 and attended fire science classes at Crafton Hills College. He was a resident of Beaumont, Calif.

Jason McKay, Assistant Fire Engine Operator, was 27 years old and had five years of Forest Service experience and four years as a volunteer firefighter in Adelanto. He also served on the Mojave Greens Type II crew. He was a certified EMT and earned an associate’s degree in Fire Science. He was a resident of Phelan, Calif.

Daniel Hoover-Najera, Firefighter, was 20 years old and was in his second season of firefighting. He worked on the Tahquitz Type II crew in 2005 and was a seasonal employee in 2006. He graduated from San Jacinto Mountain View High School in 2004. He was a resident of San Jacinto, Calif.

Pablo Cerda, who remains in critical condition, is a 23-year-old Firefighter in his second season with the Forest Service. He was previously of the Tahquitz Type II crew. He graduated from Los Amigos High School in Santa Ana in 2001 and attended Fire Academy of Riverside Community College. He is a resident of Fountain Valley, Calif.

The five Forest Service employees were on Engine Crew 57 on the San Jacinto Ranger District. They were dispatched early Thursday morning to assist on a state managed wildfire, the Esperanza Incident. They were engaging in structure protection and firefighting activities when they where overrun by flames. The accident investigation is ongoing.

“Our deepest condolences go out to the families during this very tragic time,” said Jeanne Wade Evans, San Bernardino National Forest Supervisor. “All of us on the forest and in the fire service community are suffering a great loss.”