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5 firefighters shared a spirit of dedication

Friends and families of the crew of Engine 57 recount dreams, hopes.

October 28, 2006|David Reyes and Sara Lin | Times Staff Writers

Jess McLean had always wanted to be a firefighter.

"By the time he was 6, he knew he was going to be a fireman," said older brother Josh McLean, 32. "There was no doubt about it."

The 27-year-old Beaumont resident was one of four who died Thursday after being overtaken by wind-driven flames while fighting the Esperanza fire. The men, crew of Engine 57 from Alandale, were near San Gorgonio View Road about 8 a.m. when flames unexpectedly turned uphill, catching them as they ran.

Also killed were Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, the team's captain; Jason McKay, 27, of Phelan; and Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto.

A fifth firefighter, Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley, was critically burned and remained on life support.

On Friday, after the U.S. Forest Service released names of the victims, friends and loved ones shared memories that carried a common thread: lifelong devotion to a harsh job.

Engine operator McLean's story was typical.

His brother spoke in front of the Beaumont house where the firefighter lived with his wife of two years, Karen. The house is on a tree-lined street with large eucalyptus that swayed in the strong winds that still buffeted the area. People had left condolence notes on the door.

McLean grew up in the Cabazon area and went to Banning High, his brother said. "Right out of high school," Josh McLean said, Jess "started volunteering for the Banning Fire Department."

McLean worked his way up to the Forest Service and volunteered for anything, eager to become the best firefighter in the force, Josh McLean said. He got his wish when he was chosen for the Forest Service's Hot Shot team, considered the firefighting elite.

They are the "toughest of the tough," said Karen Guillemin, public information officer for California Department of Forestry.

McLean stood 5 feet 9 nine inches tall and weighed 150 pounds. Although slight, he had one of the team's most demanding and dangerous jobs: He hefted the saw and oil uphill in rough terrain, cutting a path for the crew behind him -- "a chain-saw guy" whose enthusiasm made up for his lack of bulk, his brother said.

After he married, McLean left the Hot Shot team and became an engineer for the same unit at Idyllwild. He had been with the department seven years, officials said.

McLean was supposed to be off duty the day he died. "But they called him, and he went," his brother said.

Loutzenhiser, of Idyllwild, the firefighting crew's leader, was called a dedicated career firefighter and devoted family man. He was a 21-year veteran of the Forest Service and a certified emergency management technician.

McKay, the crew's assistant engine operator, had spent years learning his craft: five years of Forest Service experience and four years as a volunteer firefighter in Adelanto. He was a certified emergency medical technician and had earned an associate's degree in fire science, officials said.

"He was a really approachable guy. Willing to help when he could. He seemed like a smart guy," said Matt Kirkhart, a firefighter who took classes with McKay.

A passion for the work also distinguished Hoover-Najera, said Bob Davis, principal of San Jacinto Mountain View High School, where the young man graduated in 2004.

Davis described the San Jacinto firefighter as quiet, well liked and determined: "He wanted to get done with school and move on with his life. He worked hard and had a goal in life, and that was to be a firefighter," Davis said.

On Friday, grief counselors were at the school to talk to students and teachers. "He was just a very young person, but he died doing what he loved," Davis said.

Cerda, the only surviving firefighter, devoted all his energy to his career, said a neighbor, John Wippler. He wanted to get experience to work in a big city department, Wippler said.

The Fountain Valley firefighter suffered burns to over 90% of body. His chances of survival are considered poor.

Fountain Valley neighbors described him as a wholesome, quiet young man who likes soccer and moved back in with his father to help after his mother died. He and is serving only his second season with the Forest Service.

"He had a dream of becoming a firefighter," said Mike Ono, an assistant principal at his high school, Los Amigos High in Fountain Valley, "and he achieved that."

Times staff writers Jill Leovy, David McKibben and Mai Tran contributed to this report.

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