december 2012

By John N. Maclean

I was attending a fire conference in Reno, Nev., a few years ago when a Forest Service engine captain I knew, Richard Gearhart, strode up and asked in a bold manner, ‘Are you going to do a book on the Esperanza Fire?’

At that time, almost a year after the fire, I had a new book out, The Thirtymile Fire, the story of a horrific fatal fire in north-central Washington. Though I had visited the site of the Esperanza Fire in Southern California not long after it burned in October 2006, I had decided not to pursue the story. For one thing, I was battle-weary after finishing The Thirtymile Fire, my third book on fatal wildland fires. For another, CalFire, the state firefighting agency, was anxious not to upset the pending arson-murder trial of Raymond Oyler, who was charged with setting the Esperanza Fire; someone in the agency had sent out an email telling agency personnel not to talk about the fire, and specifically not to talk to me. “Esperanza is a CalFire fire,” I told Gearhart, “and the powers that be at CalFire have shut off my access.”

“No, you’re wrong, it’s a Forest Service story,” replied Gearhart, whose engine had been stationed only a couple of hundred yards from Forest Service Engine 57 when it was burned over, killing its captain and four-man crew. “And we can tell it to you.”


The San Jacinto District engine crew were a closely knit group; many of them lived in the mountain town of Idyllwild about an hour’s drive up from the floor of the Banning Pass, the main east-west artery that links the Los Angeles basin and the desert communities to the east. Engine 57’s captain Mark Allen “Lotzy” Loutzenhiser was the group’s guiding spirit. The 43-year-old had long experience and a reputation as a careful and reliable man. The loss of Loutzenhiser and his entire crew had been heartbreaking. More than that, Walker said, he and others were

Gearhart then brought over Norm Walker, the division chief in charge of the Forest Service engines that day; Engine 57 was one of five engines from the San Jacinto District of t San Bernardino National Forest assigne to the fire. Walker, who has a quiet but determined manner, described for me the story of the fire and its aftermath.

The San Jacinto District engine crew were a closely knit group; many of them lived in the mountain town of Idyllwild about an hour’s drive up from the floor of the Banning Pass, the main east-west artery that links the Los Angeles basin and the desert communities to the east. Engine 57’s captain Mark Allen “Lotzy” Loutzenhiser was the group’s guiding spirit. The 43-year-old had long experience and a reputation as a careful and reliable man. The loss of Loutzenhiser and his entire crew had been heartbreaking. More than that, Walker said, he and others were

deeply unsettled at the way the fire investigation had been carried out. In their view, facts had been distorted or omitted and reputations had been unfairly blemished. Their side of the story needed telling, Walker said, and they were prepared to tell it to me.

That episode started me on a five-year-long mission to recapture the horror of the Esperanza Fire, to look into the way it was handled afterward, and to cover the lengthy trial and death-penalty hearing of Raymond Oyler, the first-ever wildfire arsonist to be convicted of murder. During those years – from that first encounter in Reno to the present – Gearhart, Walker and the three other Forest Service captains (Anna Dinkel, Freddie Espinoza and Chris Fogle) kept faith with that initial promise of cooperation – and with the memory of their fallen comrades.

Over the last couple of decades I suppose I have become a kind of court of last resort regarding fatal wildland fires, the outsider who is called upon after the official reports are written to go back and look again, to walk the ground, to listen sometimes over and over as survivors tell their stories, to solicit the views of others knowledgeable about fire, and to try to explain in detail how anything so terrible could have happened. Invariably, I am asked to look into the official investigations and reports about the fires and, if warranted, to correct the record and right the wrongs inflicted upon the dead.

My books aim to appeal to the general reader as well as to the fire community. The general reader gets an inside look at the who and the how of fighting wildland fire, which has become more dangerous and more scrutinized by the public with the expansion of the wildland-urban interface into previously wild areas. And the reader is asked to consider why some of these fires are fought.

The books provide the fire community an intimate look at how things went fatally wrong for people just like them. More than one firefighter has told me my books save lives by providing cautionary tales and lessons for the future; I hope this is true.


I began working on fire stories more than two decades ago when my father, Norman Maclean, died without having completed Young Men and Fire, his account of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire that claimed the lives of 12 smokejumpers and one ex-smokejumper who had become a wilderness guard. Many careful readers believe, as I do, that the unifying power of Young Men and Fire comes from my father’s lifelong connection to fire, which began when he fought fire as a teenager in Montana. He started work on his Mann Gulch book in high spirits when he was 73 years old, just

after publication of his first book, the autobiographical A River Runs Through It and Other Stories.

Young Men and Fire started out as a straightforward fire story. Buoyed by the growing acclaim for A River Runs Through It, my father expected to wrap up the fire book in a few years and move on to other writing projects. As the years went by, however, the story grew in scope into something with deeper currents – much deeper than a tale of misadventure in the woods. It became the story of my father as an old man looking back on a life he might have lived as a young smokejumper, imbuing that world with a heightened spiritual awareness. The jumpers had fulfilled the desire of youth for adventure undertaken with fiery passion, but in doing so had been denied the long perspective granted to my father. Looking ahead to his own approaching end, he found a way to join in spirit and to memorialize the men he might have been. He spent the rest of his days working on that story and died, at the age of 87, with the book unfinished.

That’s where I enter the story.

Popular notions to the contrary, I did not pull Young Men and Fire into shape. I helped edit and fact-check the book, as did several others. For the record, I had slightly more than 100 comments and corrections and scored above 90 percent in getting them accepted by the publisher, the University of Chicago Press. Alan Thomas, a senior editor at the Press, did the true editing of the text, arranging it into a flowing narrative without disturbing my father’s words.

Once Young Men and Fire came out, however, I did undertake a major project regarding the book. I wrote to people with connections to the Mann Gulch story – the last living survivor Robert Sallee; Lois Jansson, the widow of Ranger John Robert Jansson, who had been in charge of the fire; Pat Dodge Wilson, the widow of Wag Dodge, the foreman in charge of the fire crew, and others – and solicited their comments and reactions to the book: good, bad or indifferent. Through correspondence and visits with these people over several years, I learned firsthand that fatal fires do not die out when the embers go cold: they burn down through the generations. I also learned that a book can help by

opening discussion of matters long bottled up and by providing a public, easily available record of events that otherwise might fade from memory.


After many letters and visits, I thought I had done my duty and was through with fire. But fire has a mind of its own. In the summer of 1994, two years after publication of Young Men and Fire, the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain in Colorado took the lives of 14 firefighters, three of them smokejumpers, the first time smoke-jumpers had been fatally overcome by flames since Mann Gulch. The fire was a mirror of events in Mann Gulch

– topography, time of day, fire behavior, the involvement of smokejumpers, the number of fatalities. It appeared like a cloud of destiny on my horizon.

My editor at the Chicago Tribune, where I had worked for nearly 30 years, mostly in the Washington Bureau, came over and waved a piece of Associated Press copy in front of me. “You need to do this story,” he said. When I suggested that instead of trying to compete with the army of reporters at the site in Colorado I should go to Mann Gulch on its upcoming anniversary in August and write about the similarities between the two fires, he told me to do it. I enlisted, among others, my father’s research partner, Laird Robinson, a onetime smoke-jumper foreman, and we visited Mann Gulch on the anniversary date. The result was a long piece for the Tribune comparing the two fires. And once again, I thought I had done my duty and was finished with fire.

Then I telephoned the family of Don Mackey, the smokejumper-in-charge on Storm King who was among the fallen. Bob and Nadine Mackey, Don’s parents, lived in the Bitterroot Valley near Hamilton, an easy drive from my family cabin at Seeley Lake. Don’s reputation had come under a cloud; he had made serious mistakes, it was said, that led to the fatalities – including his own. The fire investigation report, though, left that and many other

questions unsettled, and survivors as well as families were upset. Two of the investigators had refused to sign the final report, though one relented in the end; the Forest Service wound up reinvestigating the fire’s behavior, but not until years later. The fire, in short, had become a story in search of an author. Over the next several months, I put together a book proposal and found an agent, Jennifer Lyons, who is my agent to this day. She found a publisher.

In the spring of the year following the fire, after three decades at the Tribune, I quit and headed west to write a book on the South Canyon Fire. This sounds like a natural thing for me to do. But consider: I was in my early 50s and too young to retire from the Tribune and take a pension. I had many working years ahead, and I had a wife and two sons. So on April 1, 1995, hoping it all wasn’t a big April Fool’s joke on me, I stepped into my Jeep Cherokee and headed west to meet Mackey’s parents on Storm King Mountain, where they were going to help place memorial markers for the fallen firefighters.

When Fire on the Mountain came out five years later, I made my first promotional appearance for the book at a wildland fire and mitigation conference in Colorado. To say the large audience was knowledgeable about the fire would be an understatement: everyone there knew the South Canyon Fire in detail, and many had played a role in it.

I had kept my feelings about the story on paper or bottled up for five years, but on this occasion I poured it all out: the challenge of writing a book everyone would compare with Young Men and Fire, already hailed as a classic, and the years of dealing with families of the fallen. I spoke of the slow gathering of the story until it began to come together and told the story of the final moments of the fire crew in grim detail. I talked for more than two hours and left the audience and me physically and emotionally drained.


Since then, appearing before fire groups has been an important part of my work. It exposes me to the people I write about, giving them a chance to have a say, and forces me to take into account expert opinion and different points of view. The interaction provides fresh material and contacts that contribute to future books, as it did when Capt. Gear-hart braced me about the Esperanza Fire. Presentations are a reality show, however, and the experience can be unnerving.

After I wrote The Thirtymile Fire about the blaze in Washington State that took the lives of four young Forest Service firefighters, I appeared at Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane, Wash., with Kathie FitzPatrick, the mother of one of the victims, Karen Lee FitzPatrick. Kathie had written her own book, Angel Promises, about Karen, who was a lovely, physically strong, deeply religious 18-year-old at the time of her death.

Kathie and I had become friends, but we differed on one major point. After the fire, Kathie and several others had been deeply offended by the official fire report, which initially blamed the victims for ignoring a direct order to retreat – a charge immediately denied by survivors and later revised. They had worked successfully with Congress to pass legislation requiring oversight of all future Forest Service fatality reports. It wasn’t a bad thing in itself, but I disagreed completely with the way it was being implemented.

The legislation had resulted in the indictment of Ellreese Daniels, the incident commander, for negligent manslaughter. Those charges had just been dismissed, however, and Daniels had pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges, for which he eventually was given probation. Daniels’ public defender Tina Hunt was in the audience. As I described in detail my objections to the legislation and its effects, being careful to respect Kathie’s position, Hunt arose from her seat.

“I think everybody should know that U.S. Attorney Jim McDevitt just walked in,” Hunt announced in her courtroom voice. Indeed, McDevitt, who had brought the case against Daniels, had come in late and taken a seat toward the rear, just as I was launching into my opinions about why those charges were a travesty of justice and why justice was served when the most serious ones were tossed out.

It made for an interesting evening. At one point, I gave McDevitt the opportunity to defend his actions in front of the audience. He was constrained because Daniels hadn’t been sentenced yet. But he came up to me afterward and asked to talk in more detail once the case was over, to explain his side of things. Though he and I were on opposite ends of the argument, he behaved like a gentleman and we did have a long talk some time later. He failed to win me over, but he had the opportunity to make his case.


I’m often asked what I’m gong to write about next. I don’t know exactly yet, but I will write something more; my father, after all, didn’t start work on A River Runs Through It until he was 70, which is older than I am today. There are several fires from recent years I’d like to dig into, a couple of them in California. That should be possible: the CalFire gag order against me was lifted, thanks to the intervention of CalFire’s chief public information officer, Julie Hutchinson. When Hutchinson found out about the order, in a chance encounter with me on the fifth anniversary of the Esperanza Fire, she quickly got clearance from Ken Pimlott, director of CalFire, to open the agency’s doors.

It is an honor to serve and be a part of the fire community. I hope, though, that never again in my lifetime is there a fire like South Canyon, Thirtymile or Esperanza. I hope that never again do the echoes of Mann Gulch reverberate on another steep dry slope, in another time of extreme heat and high wind, with another fire crew caught in the path of flames. I hope that no one ever again calls on me with one of those offers that simply cannot be turned down.