An author of books about fatal wildfires in the West focused on the arson-started Old Fire of October 2003 in a recent New York Times op-ed, arguing that "reducing the number of human-started fires is an absolute imperative."
Penalties for arson-started fires that result in fatalities "remain generally far too weak," John N. Maclean said in the NYT.
Maclean is author of the forthcoming book "The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57," about the October 2006 firestorm that started in Cabazon.
The arson-set fire started in Cabazon near Esperanza Avenue early Oct. 26, 2006, burned up a drainage into Twin Pines, and overwhelmed the crew of Engine 57, who were set up to protect a vacant home on Gorgonio View Road.
Fatally injured in the wind-driven firestorm that day were Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, Pablo Cerda, 24, Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, Jason Robert McKay, 27, and Jess Edward McLean, 27.
Raymond Lee Oyler, a mechanic with ties to Cabazon, Banning and Beaumont, was convicted in March 2009 of five counts of murder, and sentenced to death.
Oyler's sentence notwithstanding, Maclean cites other fires in California and says there is "a kind of negligence that smart laws help prevent."
"The most recent - and most extreme - example is the case of a 31-year-old man named Rickie Lee Fowler," Maclean said in the NYT. "In August, Mr. Fowler was found guilty of setting what's known as the Old Fire of 2003, one of the most destructive blazes in the history of Southern California. It began when Mr. Fowler, high on methamphetamines, tossed a lighted road flare into roadside scrub. The subsequent blaze burned more than 90,000 acres and cost Californians $40 million. Five elderly men died. Mr. Fowler’s jury has recommended that he be put to death. A judge will sentence him next month."
The October 2003 Old Fire ultimately contributed to 22 deaths, including 16 who died in post-fire flash floods in scorched canyons just north of San Bernardino on Christmas Day 2003.
To read Maclean's full op-ed piece, click here.
Maclean worked 30 years for the Chicago Tribune and served as foreign editor before publishing his first book, "Fire on the Mountain," about the deaths of 14 firefighters in the 1994 South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain. Maclean is a resident of Washington, D.C.