Image: Firefighter memorial
Reed Saxon  /  AP
The U.S. flag flies at half-staff behind a sign in memory of four firefighters who died and one who was injured in the Esperanza fire at a roadside memorial near Idyllwild, Calif., on Saturday.
updated 10/28/2006 5:23:58 PM ET 2006-10-28T21:23:58

Jeff Horn paid little attention when he heard his friends next door at the fire station packing up their gear and warming up the fire engine.

“I thought they were leaving on a fire just like they always do,” Horn recalled. After all, the station’s five crew members had doused a wildfire in the mountains 90 miles east of Los Angeles just days before and had quickly returned.

However, when he tuned in the news later Thursday morning, Horn learned that four of a group of five firefighters battling a wind-driven blaze a few miles away had been killed. The fifth was in a hospital, clinging to life with burns over 90 percent of his body. The names of his friends were released a day later.

It was the worst U.S. wildfire disaster to strike firefighters since July 2001, when four were killed fighting a blaze in Washington’s Okanogan National Forest.

Less than an hour before Horn was awakened by the rumbling of the Alandale station’s fire engine, Tim Bowers had been roused from bed by the barking of his dog in Cabazon, a desert hamlet just down the road from Palm Springs.

Bowers, 49, stepped outside to see a huge wall of flames no more than a football field’s distance from his home. Two young men he didn’t recognize — in a neighborhood where everybody knows everybody else — were walking quickly in the other direction. Within moments they had vanished into the pre-dawn darkness.

The fire raced south, away from Bower’s trailer home but straight up the side of the San Jacinto Mountains, toward rustic Twin Pines, which sits near the top. That is where the Alandale crew went to make their stand.

20 years of experience
The crew had accomplished their initial goal of getting people safely out of their homes and, at 8 a.m., with the sun up but obscured by huge pillars of smoke, they were trying to keep flames directly above them from overtaking a large home and nearby garage where several cars were parked.

It was just the type of job the crew’s 44-year-old captain, Mark Loutzenhiser, excelled at. He had been fighting fires in this rugged, mountainous terrain for more than 20 years and knew the area as well as anyone.

“He knew his job and always protected his crew,” U.S. Forest Service spokesman Pat Boss, a firefighter himself, said Friday. “He was respected for his work and ability, and any firefighters in the district would have followed him in a heartbeat.”

Image: Firefighters
AP file
From left: Engine Captain Mark Loutzenhiser, of Idyllwild, Calif., fire engine operator Jess McLean, of Beaumont, Calif., and engine operator Jason McKay

This time, however, the region’s Santa Ana winds, nicknamed “Devil Winds,” turned on him in a way that apparently even Loutzenhiser didn’t expect.

“People say ‘Why didn’t he outrun it?’ But when the wind is blowing like that, you have no chance of outrunning it,” said Jim Johnson, a lifelong friend of Loutzenhiser, who had grown up in the area and seemed to be a friend to everyone in his tiny hometown of Idyllwild, a few miles from the fire station.

Santa Ana winds, which roar through the region almost every autumn, can gust with enough force to knock a person down. Even worse for firefighters, they can change direction in the blink of an eye. According to witnesses, that’s just what they did, trapping Loutzenhiser and his crew in what firefighters call a “burnover.”

Prepared for an emergency
Among those killed was Daniel Hoover-Najera, whose family members recalled how he used to demonstrate the emergency shelter he carried with him for just such a situation. He could open it and get inside within 30 seconds, but on Thursday there wasn’t even that much time.

“They heard it (coming), started to run and that was all she wrote,” Boss said of the wind-driven blaze.

Firefighters standing just yards away could do nothing but watch in horror, then call frantically for help.

Hoover-Najera, 20, died immediately, authorities said. So did Jess McLean, the crew’s 27-year-old engine operator, and Jason McKay, 27, the team’s assistant engine operator.

Loutzenhiser was still alive when paramedics arrived and, according to witnesses, was able to speak briefly with them. He died hours later at a hospital.

Firefighter Pablo Cerda, 23, was hospitalized in critical condition. He underwent surgery Friday to remove about 70 percent of his burned skin.

Outrage and grief
Firefighters in Cabazon, following up on Bowers’ tip about the two young men, concluded within hours that the deadly fire was the result of arson, something that outraged the firefighters’ friends.

“I think they should get the death penalty for this,” said Marlene Lopez, who lives next door to McLean’s Beaumont home. “His poor family doesn’t have their husband or their son because someone out there wasn’t thinking right.”

Firefighters who witnessed the tragedy were too grief-stricken to discuss it.

“We were with our friends. That’s enough,” said one young firefighter who had been working near the Alandale crew when the flames overwhelmed them. His eyes red and puffy from crying, he would not give his name or describe further what happened when the flames rained down on the crew, reducing its fire truck to a hunk of blackened metal.

“We’ve had many terrible tragedies over the years and lost the lives of many brave men and women firefighting. This ranks as the worst,” said U.S. Forest Service Chaplain Steve Seltzner.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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