Remembering Engine Company 57


Chief Sam DiGiovanna

Photo courtesy Landon Jensen.

Oct. 26, 2006, it seems yesterday. Time passes so quickly. This day in sticks with me. I was home in Orange County leaving for work in Los Angeles. I saw the large plume of smoke to the east. In a matter of seconds it intensified. The plume expanded and rose quickly into the atmosphere. I knew something went bad, but little did I know how bad it really was.

Santa Ana Winds stirred throughout the southland.

A Red Flag warning had been issued. Forecasters warned of a high probability for large fire growth due to the dangerous conditions we often face this time of year: high temperatures, low humidity and Santa Ana winds. The heavy chaparral and manzanita were perilously dry.

At 1:11 a.m., resources were promptly dispatched from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) to a reported brush fire at the base of the hill in the town of Cabazon. The first-in engine, Engine 24, arrived on scene at 1:18 a.m. Initially, the fire was approximately two acres in size and located on the base of the hillside. At 1:24 a.m., the first-arriving Battalion Chief from CAL FIRE reported the fire had grown to approximately 10 acres with a rapid rate of spread, and had crossed the road east of the main drainage at a location called Hallis Grade.

At 1:43 a.m. — with humidity at just 5% — Forest Service Engines 51, 52, 54, 56, and 57 were dispatched to the fire. Along with the four engines, Engine Co. 57 (stationed in San Jacinto/Idyllwild) was directed to the mountain area of Gorgonio View Road and Wonderview Road to triage houses.

The engines encountered people fleeing in vehicles down the highway, adding to the chaos. Engine personnel reported the road was obstructed with numerous civilian vehicles, motor homes, horses and livestock. Due to the traffic congestion, the engines became separated and Engines 52 and 57 arrived at the staging area first.

Following orders, Engines 52 and 57 set up for structure protection. Conditions continued to worsen, enveloping the crews in heat and smoke. With increasing wind and tinder-dry fuel, the fire began to intensify below, quickly advancing up the canyon walls. After it passed, attempts to contact Engine 57 went unanswered.

At approximately 7:57 a.m., the heat and smoke diminished enough for the captains from Engine 51 and 52 to work their way into Engine 57’s location. There, they discovered the crew and engine had been completely burned over. Three members had been killed at the incident; two were transferred to an area hospital, where they succumbed to their injuries.

The Esperanza Fire ultimately consumed 41,173 acres and destroyed 34 residences and 20 outbuildings. The fire also forced the closure of Highway 243.

The five members of Engine 57 perished doing what firefighters do: protecting lives and property. Like all firefighters who have sacrificed their lives for others, they are not forgotten. And as we remember them, we must also remember this: We’re not out of the woods. This year’s Santa Ana season has just begun. The winter brought heavy rains to many areas of our state, but ironically this too often leads to a worse fire season, providing ample new growth for fuel and fire spread. Stay together, train together, review your department policies, stay heads-up at all times and train as if your life depends upon it. Because it does.

In memory of Captain Mark Loutzenhiser, Fire Engine Operator Jess “Gus” McLean, Assistant Fire Engine Operator Jason McKay, Firefighter Pablo Cerda, and Firefighter Daniel Najera.

About Chief Sam DiGiovanna

Sam DiGiovanna is a 33-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as fire chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, Calif. In addition, he is a regular contributor to NBC News 4 Los Angeles.  Sam also serves as Executive Vice President of Fire Operations at CORDICO INC.