When a jury returns to a packed courtroom to announce the verdict in a capital murder case, every sound – even a chair scraping or a door opening – cracks loud. That's how it was at the trial of Raymond Lee Oyler, accused of murder for setting Southern California's Esperanza Fire, which in the fall of 2006 fatally burned five men on a U.S. Forest Service engine crew.
The Esperanza Fire started on Oct. 26, in the San Jacinto Mountains above the Banning Pass. It burned 41,000 acres and destroyed dozens of homes. Forest Service Engine 57 rolled in to help defend the Twin Pines neighborhood, about 30 houses on a steep ridge face – typical wildland-urban interface, where development chews into previously wild and still unforgiving territory. The ground was bone-dry, crumbly and covered with tall chaparral. When the fire blew up, flames and superheated gases erupted in what’s called an “area ignition,” and in just about five seconds, it raced three-quarters of a mile and swept over the house where the crew had made their stand.
John Maclean, award-winning author of three previous books on wildfire disasters, first visited the site of the fire in 2007, the spring after it occurred, and he has returned many times since. The Esperanza Fire marked the first time that an entire engine crew was killed by fire, and the first time that an arsonist was successfully prosecuted for murder for setting a wildland fire. Maclean covered the lengthy capital murder trial and he details both the trial and the fire in his extraordinary book.
John Norman Maclean is an award-winning author and journalist who has written about wildland fire for more than 15 years. Before turning to fire, Maclean was for 30 years a journalist with The Chicago Tribune, most of that time as diplomatic correspondent in Washington. His first book, Fire on the Mountain, was featured in two documentaries by Dateline NBC and the History Channel. He has also written Fire and Ashes and The Thirtymile Fire, both widely celebrated and crucially acclaimed. He and his wife divide their time between Washington, DC and the West.