Authorities arrest suspect in deadly Esperanza blaze 'Morongo Tribe donated food, reward money'

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CABAZON, Calif. – It started in the early hours of Oct. 26. Hundreds of residents living west of Palm Springs woke up to the smell of smoke – and in some cases, the crackling sound of flames consuming brush and trees near their property.

Many people had no time to evacuate their beloved pets, let alone cherished family heirlooms. And within the first 24 hours of the fire, four U.S. Forest Service firefighters lost their lives when quick-moving flames fueled by gusty Santa Ana winds consumed their engine. Later that week, a fifth firefighter succumbed to the severe burns that covered 90 percent of his body.

By the time firefighters contained the blaze on Oct. 30, more than 40,000 acres had burned, including 1,200 acres on the Morongo Indian Reservation. Thirty-four homes and 20 outbuildings were destroyed, and early reports estimate that it cost nearly $10 million to fight the deadly fire.

Making a frightening scenario even worse, Riverside County fire investigators determined that an arsonist set the blaze. Authorities offered a reward in the case, and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians earmarked $100,000 for the reward fund, bringing the total to $550,000.

After questioning several people of interest, on Nov. 2 police arrested Raymond Lee Oyler, 37, of Banning, as their prime suspect. Investigators suspect him of starting 10 other fires in southern California. Officials haven’t commented on the status of the reward fund.

According to The Associated Press, cameras in remote areas caught Oyler’s car near the sites of the 10 arson fires. If convicted, he faces first-degree murder charges with special circumstances, making him eligible for the death penalty.

Oyler pleaded not guilty to the five counts of murder, 11 counts of arson and 10 counts of possession of materials to commit arson. He’s due back in court Dec. 15.

<b>Morongo’s philanthropic history</b>

When the Esperanza fire started, the Morongo tribe made contributions to aid both victims and fire support agencies.

For instance, the tribe not only earmarked reward money, they donated food and water to evacuees at the designated Red Cross evacuation centers, and dispatched two firetrucks to help fight the blaze.

Morongo Band of Mission Indians Fire Captain Tom Beadle said the first engine went out five minutes after the station received the call. “I think it’s great that they allow us to go out and do this because it helps the whole community,” he said. “I know the guys like to go out and they enjoy doing their job.”

Pam Anderson, CEO of the Riverside Chapter of the American Red Cross, spoke passionately about Morongo’s contribution to the charity. She said when tribal officials asked her how they could help she requested food and water for the evacuees.

“The tribe responded within a matter of hours and we had all these wonderful meals served,” she said. “The food was hot and delicious.”

More than 700 meals were served that week.

Anderson said the close partnership with the tribe began shortly after the tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001. And during the 2002 southern California wildfires, Morongo donated $1 million to the American Red Cross to help with relief efforts.

Mary Ann Andreas, the tribe’s vice chair, said fire victims could face further difficulties the next time it rains because burned areas are vulnerable to flooding.

“This was a real loss to the environment and human life,” she said. “This became a tragedy of mammoth proportions and we came together with the community to help out.”

Morongo also donated an undisclosed amount of its hotel rooms to fire victims.

Charles Miner, his parents and his sister, all residents of Twin Pines, lost their home and work shed in the blaze. When Miner received the call to evacuate, he jumped on his brand-new tractor and drove through the fire to spare a vital component of his livelihood as a backhoe operator.

Miner suffered first- and
second-degree burns to his hands and face. He talked about the frustration of losing his home and the red tape that awaits him if he plans to rebuild. Despite his frustration, he spoke with gratitude as he described his complimentary room on the hotel’s 22nd floor.

“Morongo did a lot for us and I thought that was pretty nice,” he said. “All my life I’ve never been one to ask for things; now it’s the other way around.”

<b>Other local tribes, organization donate funds</b>

Numerous funds were set up for the five firefighters who died trying to protect a Twin Pines home. The Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians donated $50,000, followed by $100,000 donations by the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. The California Nations Indian Gaming Association donated $10,000.