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