The cover story of the early August edition of High Country News features John N. Maclean’s expert storytelling and discerning analysis of the recent shift in perception of wildfire arson and those who commit it. In “The Fiery Touch,” Maclean establishes a context to his story for those unfamiliar with the primarily Western phenomenon, writing that:
For many decades, deliberately set wildfires were treated more as a nuisance than as a major crime. Rural communities not only tolerated arson in their backyards; they often practiced it as a cultural prerogative, to stimulate new grass on grazing land or to create jobs on fire crews.
His narrative thread is the story of Raymond Lee Oyler, a 38-year-old automechanic accused of starting Southern California’s 2006 Esperanza wildfire that killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters. Oyler’s case marked the first time that a wildfire arsonist was convicted of first-degree murder (five counts), and furthermore, sentenced to death. Maclean’s chilling retelling of the five deaths by fatal burning (“Flames overran the crew with a swiftness that left no time for more hose lays, burnouts or last words–except for one unintelligible radio transmission, the haunting cry of a never-identified young man in extreme distress”) and poignant descriptions of family reactions in the courtroom lend humanity to what might otherwise be a dry issue of crime and the legal system.
The precedent set by the strict crackdown on Oyler has been reflected in subsequent trials of wildfire arsonists, in the hopes of deterring outcomes similar to that of the Esperanza fire:
The conviction of Raymond Oyler for murder would have been unthinkable a century or even a few decades ago. Swift justice will not bring any of the victims back to life, but it sends a new and unequivocal sign of community respect for those who suffer irretrievable loss while engaged in defense of lives and property. The Oyler case stands as a warning to every would-be fire starter: Tolerance for the torch has gone the way of the Old West.
Source: High Country News