By Fire Chief Sam DiGiovanna

I remember it like it was yesterday. October 26th 2006. Santa Ana winds stirred across the southland. A Red Flag warning had been identified and was in effect. A high probability for large fire growth was in effect as conditions were high temperatures, low humidity, and Santa Ana winds.

I was home in Orange County leaving for work in Los Angeles. I could see the large plumb of smoke to the east. In a matter of moments it grew even higher into the sky. The plumb expanded and rose quickly into the atmosphere. In my heart I knew something was bad. I didn’t think it was this bad.

Earlier in the morning at 1:11 a.m. resources were 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 ten 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. Forest Service Engines 51, 52, 54, 56, and 57 were dispatched to the fire.

Humidity had dropped to 5% and the heavy chaparral and manzanita were perilously dry.

Engine Co. 57 (stationed in San Jacinto/Idyllwild) along with four other engines were directed to the mountain area of Gorgonio View Road and Wonderview Road to “triage houses.”

The four engines encountered people fleeing in vehicles down the highway which added 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 four fire engines became separated and Engines 52 and 57 arrived at the staging area first.

Engines 52 and 57 followed orders and set up for structure protection. Fire, heat and smoke conditions continued to worsen. With increasing wind, tender dry fuel, the fire began to intensify below quickly advancing up the canyon walls.

Enveloped in the heat and smoke, the fire front advances quickly and with intensively. After it passes, attempts to contact Engine 57 went unanswered. At approximately 7:57 a.m., the heat and smoke somewhat diminishes enough for Engine 51 and 52 Captains to work their way into Engine 57’s location to discover the burn-over. Sadly the 5 members of Engine 57 perished doing what firefighters do, “protecting lives and property.”

 Like all firefighters who have sacrificed their lives for others, you are not forgotten…

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

We’re not out of the woods.  Fire season is year round, however, Santa Ana Wind season has just begun. It’s going to be a bad season. Very bad!