RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) – A convicted arsonist was sentenced to death Friday for setting a Southern California wildfire that killed five federal firefighters struggling to defend a rural home from raging, wind-driven flames.

Raymond Lee Oyler, 38, was found guilty in March of five counts of first-degree murder for setting the Oct. 26, 2006, blaze about 90 miles east of Los Angeles.

Riverside County Superior Court Judge W. Charles Morgan said Oyler “set on a mission … to wreak havoc in this county” by setting fires and became increasingly proficient.

“He knew that young men and women would put their lives on the line to protect other people and property and he continued anyway,” Morgan said.

Oyler’s case is believed to mark the first time a death sentence has been ordered in the United States for an arson wildfire involving the deaths of firefighters, said John Hall, a spokesman for the district attorney.

During the trial the prosecution characterized Oyler as a serial arsonist who was bent on destruction, “a man wanting to be so important he unleashed disaster on five men.”

The firefighters’ deaths stunned the region and some 10,000 people attended the memorial service for Jason McKay, 27; Jess McLean, 27; Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20; Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, and Pablo Cerda, 23.

Relatives of the victims addressed the court during the sentencing hearing.

“The damage done to our family can never be repaired,” said Josh McClean, brother of Jess McClean. “He stole something from us that he cannot repay. To sit in the courtroom and watch the defendant smile and wave to his family, that’s something that we no longer have the opportunity to do.”

Gloria Ayala, the mother of Hoover-Najera, said she struggles with her son’s death but has forgiven Oyler. She said she also blames Oyler for hurting his own family.

“Every day I wake up and every day I think about Danny. His room is still the same, everything is the same. I shut the door the day he died and I walk in there every once in a while, I sleep in his bed every once in a while,” she said outside court after the sentencing.

Oyler, a former auto mechanic, was also convicted of 20 counts of arson and 17 counts of using an incendiary device for a rash of blazes in the area that year. Deputy District Attorney Michael Hestrin said outside court that Oyler would be taken immediately to San Quentin State Prison.

One of Oyler’s daughters, Heather, 22, wept when the sentence was pronounced and clutched her boyfriend.

Later, outside court, she said she believed her father was innocent.

“My dad is not a bad guy. He’s not bad at all,” she said. “He loves us and he wishes we didn’t have to go through this.”

The fatal blaze began on a hillside in the town of Cabazon as fierce Santa Ana winds howled across Southern California. It spread quickly from a valley floor up the north side of the mountains to the widely dispersed rural community of Twin Pines.

There, the fire overran the crew of U.S. Forest Service Engine 57 as the men tried to defend an unoccupied home at the top of a steep hill. Three firefighters died there and a fourth died soon after at a hospital. The fifth died five days later, the same day Oyler was arrested.

The blaze, known as the Esperanza Fire, also destroyed 34 homes and 20 outbuildings and charred nearly 70 square miles of terrain.

Witnesses testified during the trial that footprints and a trail of dropped gear at the scene indicate that at least one firefighter tried to run from the flames and fled for about 30 seconds before he was overcome.

Hestrin told jurors that in their final minutes, the firefighters faced flames that were 70 feet high, winds up to 40 mph and temperatures that reached 1,300 degrees.

Defense attorney Mark McDonald said that the sentencing decision had been expected.

Asked how Oyler has reacted, McDonald said, “He’s been fine with this whole thing since he got over the initial verdict.”

McDonald said he felt Oyler had a strong appeals case, particularly because an unidentified person placed news articles about an alternative suspect on the windshields of each juror’s car during deliberations.

At the time, the judge questioned the jurors individually about the incident and let the case proceed.

Oyler’s brother, Jeff, 37, said his brother has been on medication for depression.

“We feel just the like the firefighters’ families feel,” Jeff Oyler said. “My heart goes out to them also, you know.”

AP-ES-06-05-09 1540EDT

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