As 2002 was coming to an end, Peter Brierty was frustrated. As the fire marshal of San Bernardino County, the largest county in the United States, he was accustomed to having scant resources and being forced to beg for equipment and gear other fire departments took for granted. He didn't mind the fight; he usually got the board of supervisors or his immediate superiors to pony up the money, and unlike many in his position, he had a knack for knowing where the deepest government pockets were at any given time. This skill, coupled with his talent as a grant writer, would give the mountain communities a fighting chance against an enemy most didn't yet even realize existed.
Normally not one to remain down for long, the imposing 6-foot, 4-inch figure, who bears a strong resemblance to television's Dr. Phil, was fighting the only battle he truly feared: public apathy.
For nearly a year, Brierty and his core staff had done everything in their power to get the word out to the residents and property owners across the densely forested and overpopulated San Bernardino Mountains. Tonight he would lead a public meeting in the resort community of Lake Arrowhead concerning the bark beetle problem and the drought, which were coming together to bring a looming danger and the potential for unprecedented destruction to these mountains.
His mission was to call the town to action and make them care about the problem. He knew that if Lake Arrowhead residents failed to follow through once he laid all his cards on the table, there would be no hope. Soon there would be a forest fire unlike any in recorded history, and likely many of the people he would address that evening would perish.
At 7:00 P.M. on Tuesday, December 3, 2002, Fire Marshal Brierty began his presentation. His earlier fears proved founded--he was preaching to the converted, addressing exactly fifty-two audience members, twenty or so who would have attended anyway as members of the local fire safe council. Still, he forged ahead, hoping those who came would spread the word and there would be an accurate report the following Thursday in the Mountain News, the local weekly. None of the other invited media in the area had chosen to report this tragedy in the making.
"I'm a bit disappointed," he began, "not because you're all here; I can't express enough my thanks to you for coming tonight.I'm disappointed because those who really stand to lose the most, all your friends and neighbors, aren't here to learn what you and I already know: This entire mountain, from Cedarpines Park and Crestline in the west to Big Bear in the east, is an unmitigated disaster waiting to happen."
Brierty did his best and it was duly reported in Thursday's paper, but he still felt as though the entire exercise was a waste of time. The following Monday he drafted a report and sent it off to his boss, San Bernardino County Fire Chief Peter Hills.
Almost two weeks later, when Chief Hills finally had a moment to digest Brierty's report, he took his colleague to lunch. "Pete, there's an old saying about leading horses to water," he said. "You've done your best."
Brierty was still frustrated. "If we don't do something, I mean something of substance, who do you think they'll blame when the firestorm comes?" Brierty asked, a tinge of sarcasm mixed with sadness in his voice.
During lunch Brierty proposed a notice be sent to residents to abate the dead and dying trees, which could become the fuel for the fire he so dreaded. While Hills thought the proposal had merit, he also knew it would be a tough sell. Many of the dead trees still looked healthy and green, and both men knew hitting moneyed people in their wallets for unexpected tree removal costs at their vacation homes would not be well received.
The meeting ended on some other business the two needed to discuss before conversation would turn to their families and the coming holidays. With the weather in a cooling trend, complete with rainy days and snow flurries, talk ofthe forthcoming tree removal orders could wait until after the New Year. Besides, Brierty thought, there would be no way he would ever be denied support from the governor's office once Sacramento realized the extent of the danger. Surely Governor Joseph Graham "Gray" Davis would have no argument with declaring the region a disaster area and open the tap for state and federal funding to help pay for the removal of some thirty thousand dead trees.
Brierty couldn't have been more wrong.
IN AN OFFICE TUCKED behind a sprawling industrial complex off Interstate 5 near Valencia, California, Ron Wieregard, d a thirty-year veteran of the U.S. Forest Service Arson Investigation Detail, received a call on a seldom-used line to which only a handful of upper-echelon state and county officials were privy. He jumped for the old-style Western Electric government-issue telephone with the overly loud ring.
"Arson Investigation, this is Wieregard." His heart pounded whenever this phone rang.
"Ron," said the caller, trying to mask the combination of fear and anger he felt, "we've got a problem." The station chief would only call Wieregard as a last resort, something the veteran arson cop knew. In the fraternal patter of interagency rivalry, the fire guys let it be known they maintained their own staff of arson pros. They would only go outside their own ranks if they were completely vexed and the general public was at risk.
Within an hour Wieregard and his chief investigator, Allison Murray, were at the scene of an arson call at a Dumpster behind a group of town houses.
The station chief took the pair to an alley two hundred yards away from the Dumpster crime scene. "What do you smell?" the chief asked.
Murray was the first to catch the distinctive whiff of gunpowder, the kind of smell found at any local service organization's retail fireworks stand on a hot July day.
"Man," Wieregard chimed in, "that's strong, huh?"
Their hope, at this point, was to garner some correlative evidence from a series of Dumpster fires that had been plaguing the area. In recent weeks the investigators had come to the definite conclusion there was a serial arsonist at work. The same incendiary devices were found at each location, and by now there had been so many fires started that a pattern was beginning to emerge. The fires in Valencia represented the arsonist's most northern work area, south along Interstate 5, along the Interstate 210 through the San Gabriel Valley, and ending east along Interstate 10 in Fontana.
Wieregard walked away from the group and found a quiet corner. It was never easy to call home and ask his wife to not wait up. It would be another long night. As he wished her good night and made his way to the hood of the car that would double for a command post of sorts, he knew she would be up and waiting when he came home.
Copyright © 2008 by David L. Porter