Friday, March 27, 2009

esperanza report delayed

Crew retreats on Highway 243, Oct. 26 2006

By Guy McCarthy

CABAZON - Release of a federal investigation examining fire command decisions during the Esperanza Fire that killed five Forest Service firefighters has been delayed until at least mid-April, an inspector general's spokesman in the nation's capital said today.

Announcement of the delay comes about two and a half weeks after a top Agriculture official led congressional leaders to expect the report by the end of March.

In congressional testimony on March 11, Department of Agriculture Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong stated, "We expect to issue our investigative report to Congress by the end of this month."

Fong was not available for comment today.

"It will be another two to three weeks," Paul Feeney of the Agriculture Inspector General's Office of Counsel said today. "By the end of April, not March."

Feeney did not provide an explanation for the delay.

On March 6, five days before Fong said the report would be issued by the end of this month, a Riverside jury convicted Raymond Lee Oyler of five counts of first-degree murder for setting the Esperanza Fire on Oct. 26, 2006.

The ensuing firestorm overwhelmed the crew of U.S. Forest Service Engine 57, and fatally injured Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, Jason McKay, 27, Jess McLean, 27, Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, and Pablo Cerda, 24.

On March 18, jurors recommended the death penalty for Oyler. His sentencing is scheduled June 5.

"The fire occured on non-federal land," Fong testified on March 11. The Forest Service "was assisting in the suppression effort as part of a cooperative agreement with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, an entity for which OIG (Office of Inspector General) has no oversight jurisdiction."

Ever since the Agriculture Inspector General's investigation began more than two years ago, firefighter union officials have stressed they hope findings will focus on preventing another tragedy rather than seek to place blame on individuals.

Esperanza Fire from Cabazon, about 7:30 a.m. Oct. 26 2006
Photos by Guy McCarthy


neighbor honored

Bob Ashburn, 51, at Diamond Valley RV Park

By Guy McCarthy

SAN JACINTO - A man who went into a burning trailer and pulled his neighbor out alive but still in flames will be recognized as "Citizen of the Year" at an American Legion banquet tomorrow in San Jacinto.

"The award is for heroism and bravery above the call of duty," said American Legion spokesman Rod Parr, 51, who is also administrative supervisor for the Hemet Pass Division of American Medical Response.

The award is to be presented Saturday during the annual Law & Order Awards Banquet at American Legion Post 848, 312 E. Main St., Parr said.

The fire was two weeks ago today in San Jacinto.

Bob Ashburn, 51, said he's honored but he doesn't think of himself as a hero.

"I was just doing what had to be done," Ashburn said today. "It's humbling to receive the award. I'm speechless."

The man he rescued, Tom Edwin Hieber, 61, underwent more surgery today at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton and remained stabilized in critical condition, his daughter said.

"He had his third skin graft today," said Lori Linden, 43, of Hemet. "He's still on a ventilator."

Hieber suffered second- and third-degree burns over 40 percent of his body, including his back, upper torso, neck and head, Linden said. He also suffered badly burned lungs from inhaling hot fumes and smoke.

"He was able to blink today," Linden said. "He still can't speak. It's day fourteen, but he's hanging in there."

The fire was reported at 6:11 p.m. March 13 at Diamond Valley RV Park in the 300 block of North State Street, Cal Fire-Riverside County officials said.

"If it hadn't been for Bob, Tom would be dead," said Jerry Castorena, 55, maintenance manager at the RV park.

Ashburn, an unemployed iron and electrical worker with construction experience, is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran. Ashburn said today he was returning from Camp Pendleton, where he filled out several job applications.

The awards banquet starts at 5 p.m. Saturday. Dinner seating is sold out but standing room will be available, American Legion officials said. The event is open to the public.


Tom Hieber and daughter Lori Linden, November 2005.

For previous reports click here and here.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

public lands

California Conservation Corps in South Fork area

By Guy McCarthy

RIVERSIDE - Portions of Bautista Creek and the South Fork San Jacinto River in Riverside County are included in a bill passed by Congress this week to provide wilderness protection for 2 million acres of public lands nationwide, officials said today.

The Omnibus Public Lands Act, which affects 190,000 acres in Riverside County and an estimated 700,000 acres in California, requires presidential approval to become law.

The measure has been billed by some advocates as the largest addition to the nation's wilderness system in 15 years.

"Biologists consider Bautista Creek one of the most ecologically important streams in the San Bernardino National Forest, because of the variety of animal and plant species it supports," said Jennifer May, an aide to Rep. Mary Bono Mack of Palm Springs.

Bono Mack was one of two California Republicans to vote for the bill.

The South Fork San Jacinto River area is already popular with visitors who hike in from state Route 74, May said. A California Conservation Corps crew worked on the South Fork trail last week.

Other Riverside County lands affected by the bill include parts of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, as well as areas in and near Joshua Tree National Park.

Elsewhere in California the bill provides wilderness protection for lands in the East Sierras and in the Sequoia-Kings Canyon area.

"Visitors to these areas now have the promise that these lands will be protected in the future," said Sam Goldman, California coordinator for the non-profit Wilderness Society.

Wilderness protection means preservation of lands for future generations, but it can also mean reduced access for those who enjoy the outdoors on mountain bikes, dirtbikes and other off-road vehicles. Wilderness designation can also lead to restrictions on how rock climbers are allowed to place protective bolts in some areas.

Officials in Joshua Tree, Sequoia-Kings Canyon and the East Sierras indicated in phone interviews today that specific land management changes in their respective areas will not be announced until the bill is signed into law.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

burned man critical

By Guy McCarthy

COLTON - A man engulfed in flames when a neighbor pulled him from a burning trailer last week in San Jacinto is scheduled to undergo surgery today in Colton.

Tom Edwin Hieber, 61, was in critical condition at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, his daughter said.

"Say a prayer for him," Lori Linden, 43, of Hemet, said of her father. "The second surgery is for his back, upper torso, neck and head. He has second- and third-degree burns over 40 percent of his body. His lungs are burned too."

Linden called Watershed News to express gratitude to all the people who have helped keep her father alive in the past few days.

"I got there right after the fire and hugged the man who went in to save him," Linden said. "The doctors at Arrowhead tell me they saved his life again at the hospital in Moreno Valley.

"They said they had to do advanced medical maneuvers," Linden said. "They intubated him, to get tubes into his lungs before they swelled too much. Then they induced coma and airlifted him to Arrowhead Regional. I've been with him the past four days.

"They're treating him like a president at the hospital in Colton," Linden said. "Even the firefighters were in love with him. They said he was cracking jokes, even though he had been on fire."

Neighbors had publicly identified Hieber only as "Tom" since the fire, which was reported at 6:11 p.m. Friday at the Diamond Valley RV Park in the 300 block of North State Street.

Hieber has worked in construction and security for about 10 years in the San Jacinto area and he was getting ready to retire, his daughter said.

"He didn't have insurance on the trailer," Linden said. "Somebody in the park has already donated another trailer. But he's to be in the hospital for a long time recovering. When he gets out I want him to come live with me."

Linden said she is especially grateful to Bob Ashburn, a 51-year-old resident of the RV park who went into the burning trailer Friday and came out with Hieber still in flames.

"He did it not even knowing for sure if anybody was in there," Linden said. "He is my angel, for saving my dad."

Jerry Castorena, 55, the maintenance manager for Diamond Valley RV Park, his wife Tanya, and Ashburn said this morning their thoughts are with Hieber.

"We're hoping the best for him and his family right now," Castorena said. "This has got to be difficult for them."


Tom Hieber and daughter Lori Linden in Beaumont, November 2005.
Photos courtesy of the Hieber family.

Monday, March 16, 2009


By Guy McCarthy

MOUNTAIN CENTER - Formerly jobless young adults from San Bernardino, Victorville and Los Angeles went to work today in two sections of the San Bernardino National Forest - on the Cucamonga Trail in Lytle Creek, and near the South Fork San Jacinto River west of Mountain Center.

Backs bent over shovels, picks and rakes, they labored on trail projects funded in part by the $787 billion national economic stimulus plan recently enacted by Congress, according to forestry and California Conservation Corps officials.

"I'm glad to have this job," said Melina Vasquez, 18, who rose before dawn today with her crew to tackle trail work off Highway 74 in the San Jacinto Mountains of Riverside County.

"It teaches you a lot about the world you haven't seen," said Vasquez, who grew up in Watts and recently moved to Victorville. "In my neighborhood back home it was getting rough. This is a good change."

Vasquez worked with a crew of about 15 men and women, ages 18 to 25, who are part of the California Conservation Corps.

"It's minimum wage and hard work," said Mitchell Norton, 20, of Victorville. "But it's a good job, working outdoors."

Further north in San Bernardino County, members of a crew with the newly-formed Urban Conservation Corps worked today on a section of the Cucamonga Trail in the Middle Fork of Lytle Creek, said forestry spokeswoman Valerie Baca.

The UCC crew got measured for boots and uniforms on Friday in San Bernardino, Baca said. The U.S. Forest Service also has a partnership with a third jobs program for young adults, the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, Baca said.

The Forest Service has received an initial allowance of $98 million from the federal stimulus package, and some of that money is going to trail reconstruction and maintenance in the San Bernardino National Forest, according to Baca.

Up to 1,500 jobs will be created nationally by the first round of stimulus-funded Forest Service projects, according to Baca and other forestry officials.

During a brief pause from her work near Mountain Center, Jessica Riley, 18, of San Bernardino, recounted months of job hunting that may sound familiar to thousands of recently unemployed Americans.

"In the past eight months I went to places like Wal-Mart, Target, Payless and Stater Brothers," Riley said. "They all said they weren't accepting applications.

"This is an ideal job right now," Riley said. "I can work, make money, and go to school at the same time."

Like some of her peers in the California Conservation Corps who have not completed high school, Riley is working towards her GED.

Current work projects for the forest's corps partners include trail maintenance, brush clearance and assisting with surveys.

Although destructive fires are a regular occurrence in and near the San Bernardino National Forest - particularly in the past five years - it remains unclear whether any federal stimulus funds will be used for putting crews to work on fuel reduction or fire breaks.

Several fuel reduction projects scheduled this year in the San Bernardino National Forest are already funded from other sources, Baca said.


inside a burning trailer

USMC veteran Bob Ashburn today at Diamond Valley RV Park

By Guy McCarthy

SAN JACINTO - "It was massive smoke, fire and heat," Bob Ashburn, 51, said today, recalling the scene Friday night inside a burning trailer.

"At first I couldn't see anybody," Ashburn said. "I stepped out and took a bunch of deep breaths, went back inside - through the living room - to some steps by the bathroom.

"That's when I saw Tom, through the smoke. I could see the flames on him."

Flames were shooting through the roof and dense smoke poured from the vents and door of the trailer when Ashburn went in, and he came out with his neighbor on fire but still alive.

In one of his first public interviews since the rescue effort, Ashburn said today he remains concerned for Tom, who is reportedly still clinging to life in a local hospital.

Neighbors and officials at the Diamond Valley RV Park have so far identified their critically burned neighbor by his first name only. They said today Tom remains in an induced coma with a 50-50 chance of survival.

The fire was reported at 6:11 p.m. Friday at the Diamond Valley RV Park in the 300 block of North State Street, said Cal Fire-Riverside County Capt. Casey Hartman.

"I was barbecuing outside my unit when a neighbor said 'There's smoke,' " Ashburn said. "I ran over this way and hollered 'Fire in the park!' to let people know, like we practiced.

"The door was open and flames were coming out the top" of Tom's trailer, Ashburn said. "A lot of smoke was coming out the door."

Ashburn said his reactions to the situation inside the trailer were automatic.

"Flames were coming out one of the doors inside but I felt I could dash up there and have a look," Ashburn said. "When I saw Tom side-stepping out I don't think he realized he was on fire.

"He said, 'Bring a hose, the fire's in here.' I grabbed him by the chest and hands - the only part of him that wasn't burning - and tugged him. He wanted to go back and I said 'No!' He was still trying to go back even though he had flames on him."

Ashburn rushed Tom outside, where neighbors doused him with a hose and a fire extinguisher.

Tom remained semi-conscious outside, in spite of his severe burns.

"He said he wasn't covered by insurance, that this is all he had," Ashburn said.

The burned man suffered second-degree burns over 40 percent of his body as well as airway injuries, said Cal Fire-Riverside County spokeswoman Cheri Patterson.

"Most of the damage they are concerned about is to his lungs, from inhaling the hot smoke," said Jerry Castorena, maintenance manager at Diamond Valley RV Park.

Investigators were at the park Saturday and Sunday but had not told Castorena or anyone else in the community what they had learned about the cause of the fire, Castorena said.

The Diamond Valley RV Park is home to about 140 trailers, RVs and mobile homes, said Ethan Moser, an assistant to the RV park's manager.

The resident who was burned is a permanent resident of the park, Moser said.

The fire destroyed a "fifth-wheel travel trailer" - where the rescue occurred - but did not spread to any other homes or trailers.

"We were lucky there were no winds the other night," Castorena said. "It would have been an inferno."

A firefighter was hospitalized with a minor ankle injury, Patterson said.

Ashburn is an unemployed iron and electrical worker with construction experience. He served in the Marine Corps from 1977 to 1986.

"I'm just thankful that Tom's still hanging in there," Ashburn said. "Hopefully he'll be doing better."


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

north face

Upper reaches of Falls Creek and Snow Creek on San Jacinto

By Guy McCarthy

SNOW CREEK VILLAGE - Alpine-trained volunteers and a helicopter crew today plucked two overdue climbers high off the north face of Mount San Jacinto, one of the steepest escarpments in the continental United States.

Andrew Hillery, 24, and Chris Cannizzaro, 23, both of Playa Del Rey, started early Saturday and ascended more than 7,000 vertical feet by early today, according to rescuers.

But the pair got bogged down in deep snow, ended up off route, and ran out of food Monday, they told reporters after they were safe at the base of the mountain.

"We want to thank everybody here," Hillery said, gesturing to members of the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit and the Sheriff's Department. "We thought it was going to be a two-day climb. But we didn't know the trail. We didn't realize how steep the peak was."

Route-finding was perhaps the most difficult part of the ordeal, the climbers said.

"We were just trying to keep the summit in our eyes," Cannizzaro said. "We thought we knew where to go, and here we are four days later - starving."

Their primary error was leaving the Snow Creek drainage, Hillery said.

"We did it twice, to get around the steep rocks," Hillery said. "That was our mistake. You have to stay in the creek."

Winds in the San Gorgonio Pass blasted lower elevations this morning as rescuers and a helicopter crew worked to reach the climbers. But conditions at higher elevations were nearly ideal for flying and hoist rescues, crew members said.

"We were about 50 feet off the deck and the winds weren't bad," said sheriff's Deputy Andy Rasmussen, 39, the hoist officer on the rescue helicopter today.

"Coming up and down the mountain there was a lot of turbulence," Rasmussen said. "But the hoists were smooth. They had picked out a fairly level area."

The climbers initially waved off the helicopter when they realized someone had come to their aid, said RMRU volunteer William Carlson, 23. But they were relieved at the same time and gladly accepted the offer of help.

Carlson said he got lowered from the rescue airship twice, at about 7,000 feet and again at 9,300 feet, near a secondary summit unofficially known as Kristin Peak. That's where the climbers were hoisted to the helicopter.

"I think they were pretty overwhelmed by the time they got to where they were," Rasmussen said. "Out of food - that's difficult. No food means no energy."

Hillery and Cannizzaro were reported missing Monday afternoon by Hillery's girlfriend, Ashleigh Chandler, 26, of Playa Del Rey.

"I'm so grateful to everyone," said Chandler, who arrived at the base of the mountain as Hillery and Cannizzaro were being interviewed by broadcast news crews.

"I know they know what they're doing," Chandler said of the climbers. "But they were supposed to be done Sunday. After I didn't hear from them - I had no idea what happened to them."

Hillery has experience on Mount Rainier in Washington and Mount Elbrus in Russia, and Cannizzaro has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, they said. They are not the first experienced mountaineers to require help on San Jacinto's daunting north face.

The rugged drainages of Snow Creek and Falls Creek rise in five miles from about 1,400 feet at Snow Creek Village to San Jacinto's summit at just over 10,800 feet elevation. The north face direct route requires walking, scrambling and technical climbing over more than 9,000 vertical feet - including snow and ice in ideal conditions.

"It's a classic alpine route when the snow is right," said RMRU volunteer Pete Carlson, 59, of Lake Arrowhead, who has climbed the north face route a half-dozen times. "You can do it in 12 hours when the route is hard underfoot.

"These are not ideal conditions," Carlson said. "Right now the snow is soft and there have been numerous huge avalanches in the past 10 days. You'd be walking through boulders of snow - the size of basketballs to Volkswagens. When it's good, it's like a smooth ramp, at 35 to 40 degrees."

The size and steepness of San Jacinto's north face made it a popular challenge in the 1940s and '50s, according to RMRU veterans and mountain historians.

Last week at funeral services for RMRU founding member Jim Fairchild, photos were displayed of Fairchild and members of Boy Scout Troop 13 after they successfully climbed the north face route in November 1956.

But the Desert Water Agency based in Palm Springs - which owns the land at the base of Snow Creek and Falls Creek - has tried to limit access to the north face since the 1960s, Carlson said.

"It's understandable - they don't want the water polluted," Carlson said. "But how can they close the whole mountain like that? Dozens of parties still try it each year. All the climbing web sites say it's trespassing, so do it covert. Just do it."

Dave Luker, general manager for the Desert Water Agency, said today he was disappointed to hear climbers still cross closed lands to get to the north face drainages.

"Our property has been closed for a couple decades now," Luker said. "It's a rough canyon and that's probably why they (Hillery and Cannizzaro) had to be rescued.

"Those are two very valuable watersheds - Falls Creek and Snow Creek - for our drinking water supplies," Luker said. "We closed them because of surface water treatment concerns. Those are pristine waters there.

"We don't have bear or bighorn sheep or any other animals in there often, because it's so steep," Luker said. "The only mammals in there from time-to-time are humans. We don't close the whole mountain either. We just ask people to stay off the water agency land. They can do whatever they want as long as they stay off our property."

Although Hillery and Cannizzaro may have trespassed to get on the north face route, they were not cited or charged with anything today, said Herlinda Valenzuela of the Riverside County Sheriff's Department.

"We're just glad everybody got down safe," Valenzuela said. "That's a steep part of the mountain."

Hillery and Cannizzaro both recently moved to Southern California from New Orleans, they said. They indicated they plan to continue alpine training for other ascents.


Troop 13 with Jim Fairchild, seated at right, November 1956.
Original photo by Don Ricker, RMRU.
For more about Fairchild click here.