The plan seemed simple enough.
On Sept. 17, 2020, the El Dorado Fire — which had been burning in the San Bernardino National Forest for almost two weeks and proving difficult to extinguish — threatened the mountain community of Angelus Oaks and the Big Bear Lake area.
Firefighters were to create a fire break to protect homes by starting their own backfires off a stretch of line cleared by a bulldozer.
The intentionally-set blazes would hopefully thin out the fuel in advance of the main fire and stop its northwestern spread. Firefighters from a San Bernardino County crew and the Big Bear Hotshots, a U.S. Forest Service crew, spread out that evening and began burning from opposite directions. They would meet in the middle.
The firing operation appeared to be “going well,” according to a federal report.
That is, until the wind picked up.
“It was good until it wasn’t,” one firefighter recalled.
At the end of the night, Charles Morton, an experienced squad boss from the Big Bear crew, would be dead, overcome by flames after he went by himself to scout spot fires.
The U.S. Forest Service released three reports last week that — for the first time — detail the events preceding Morton’s death and his final, frantic words over a radio saying he was “in a corner.”
The reports also acknowledge “reoccurring themes … that influenced the conditions leading to the death” of Morton, such as a lack of resources on the fire and a policy of aggressive firefighting that, along with climate change, will likely lead to larger and deadlier wildfires in the future.
The findings may also frame how a couple who was charged with starting the El Dorado fire will mount their defense.
A criminal grand jury indicted Refugio Manuel Jimenez Jr. and Angela Renee Jimenez last year on suspicion of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Morton and 29 arson-related crimes. Authorities said a smoke bomb set off during the couple’s gender reveal gathering sparked the 2020 fire, which ended up burning more than 22,000 acres.
The couple has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
When asked by reporters in July how prosecutors will argue the couple’s actions were responsible for Morton’s death, San Bernardino County District Attorney Anderson said the firefighter was “fighting a fire that was started because of a smoke bomb.”
“That’s the only reason he was there,” he said.
'We're at the gates of hell'
More than 9,900 fires erupted across the state in 2020 At the end of that record-breaking year, California would see over 4.2 million acres burned or about 4% of its total landmass, according to Cal Fire.
State and federal wildland firefighting agencies — already dealing with a lack of employees going to competitive fire departments offering higher wages and benefits — were strained, including Morton’s own crew.
The Big Bear Hotshots had lost two people in 2019: A crew superintendent who died from a heart attack and a captain from suicide.
The tragedies and difficulty in recruiting for positions led to an inexperienced crew that had to re-certify as a Type 1 “hotshot” crew in the beginning of 2020.
Hotshots are considered the most highly-skilled wildland fire crews and are typically assigned to the “most challenging parts of wildfires,” according to the Forest Service.
On the El Dorado fire, however, where typically 10 or more hotshot crews would be assigned due to its complexity and size, the Big Bear crew was one of only four working.
But on Sept. 17, the backfires set by members of the crew were behaving as planned, moving away from them toward the main fire.
In a video taken at 7:23 p.m., a firefighter casually films the flames illuminating the forest. Colleagues can be seen sitting nearby watching. Tree branches sway in the breeze.
“We’re at the gates of hell,” he says.
Minutes later, the same scene would turn chaotic.
Federal officials said that’s when 30 to 60 mph wind gusts began blowing embers in the opposite direction. Spot fires ignited in the unburned vegetation behind the crews. The main fire started to burn hotter.
The increased intensity, especially at night, surprised people familiar with fire behavior in the San Bernardino National Forest.
A supervising firefighter radioed for everyone on the dozer line to pull out and come back to a safer area where the line connected with Highway 38.
“As holding resources walked down the bulldozer line, what started as a walk turned into a downhill run,” a Forest Service report read.
Members of the Big Bear crew later described the smoke being so thick they could only see the boots of the firefighter in front of them.
Eventually, the crews made it back to the safe area. Morton — who supervised one of the Big Bear squads — followed behind them. Firefighters could see him calmly using a hose to put out small fires along the way.
Morton checked to make sure everyone had made it back.
“Charlie then hiked along the highway for a bit to get away from the radiant heat and disappeared into the green heading toward the bulldozer line,” the Forest Service said in a report. “When asked if the squad should follow, he said they should wait on the highway.”
That was the last time Morton would be seen alive.
A frantic search and tragic find
After Morton went into the brush, his captain radioed him and asked for his assessment. Morton responded that he had four or five spot fires, but the Big Bear squad and other firefighters could extinguish them.
“Everything is cool in here,” he said.
The scene was still chaotic. The captain told Morton he likely wouldn’t get any help, asked him to come back and if he’d be able to make it to the same area.
“We’ll see,” Morton responded on the radio. The captain radioed him again; no response.
“He then heard Charlie call in desperation, ‘I’m in a corner,’” federal officials said.
A fire chief later reported a spot fire was threatening firefighters on the highway. The captain radioed Morton and said he was taking the squad back to a safer area. He told Morton to call him when he was out.
The 39-year-old firefighter never called.
Back at the safe area, the Big Bear captain let a supervisor know Morton was missing. A higher-up was notified.
The hotshot crew’s superintendent and captain then went out looking for their squad boss. The superintendent told Forest Service officials he expected Morton “to pop out of the woods with his radio bumped off going, ‘Woah! That was crazy!’”
Immediate searches, even with the help of a sheriff’s helicopter and a drone, were unsuccessful. A search on the ground was believed to be too dangerous with the fire activity and falling dead trees, although two firefighters tried.
Eventually, a Forest Service battalion chief and another Big Bear captain went out to look on the dozer line. They walked both sides, shining flashlights and struggling to see through smoke and flames.
The chief’s light then caught a reflection of a fire shelter, a kind of protective tarp all wildland firefighters carry and can use as a last resort if they become trapped by a blaze.
The shelter had not been deployed. The two now knew Morton had not survived.
The flame front that killed Morton was intense and likely came upon him fast, according to details from one of the Forest Service reports.
Morton’s body was found on the edge of the dozer line, just 300 feet above the highway. Most of the vegetation around him was burned away with “only burnt stobs of brush and thicker tree branches and trunks” remaining, authorities said.
The Forest Service determined a counter rotating vortice, a whirlwind-like fire condition caused by shifting winds, formed where Morton was walking along the line.
When firefighters are forced to deploy a fire shelter, protocol calls for them to get rid of their equipment packs before covering up.
Morton was found still wearing his. The fire-resistant clothes he donned and hand tool he carried were mostly “consumed by fire,” federal officials said.
Fire behavior like the vortice, which was once rarely seen by firefighters, is now becoming more common due to climate change and a history of fire suppression leaving more accumulated fuel to burn, according to the Forest Service.
“Our current paradigm of treating fire as an enemy that must be defeated contributed to the condition of the forest at the time of the (El Dorado) fire,” agency officials said in a report. “Until we figure out a way to form a new, sustainable relationship with fire, we can expect forest conditions to continue to deteriorate.”
Scientists have found healthy ecosystems, such as forests, benefit from periodic fires which can clear out dead plant life and reduce the risk of more destructive conflagrations.
Despite the knowledge, Forest Service officials said its fire program is still modeled to aggressively stomp out wildfires before they get big. And intentional, or prescribed, burning to incinerate long-standing fuels doesn’t appear to be popular.
Between 1982 and 1998, land managers in California were burning an average of 30,000 acres per year, ProPublica found. Between 1999 and 2017: only 13,000 acres.
Federal firefighters like Morton are also paid less than their counterparts, which leads to experienced first responders choosing other departments to work for.
Some with several seasons “under their belt” only make minimum wage, the Forest Service said. This leads agencies struggling to fill positions when fires are raging.
The Big Bear crew, for example, in 2020 was staffed by a “significant number” of Administratively Determined hires, officials said, which are typically only employed temporarily as replacements in emergencies.
Last year, President Biden said his administration would follow through on a promise and boost pay for more than 14,800 federal firefighters, along with retroactive raises, the Los Angeles Times reported.
In a memorial after Morton’s death, people who knew him remembered him as funny, generous and loving.
“Someone said you can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you. I believe that is at the heart of being a public servant,” said Mountaintop District Ranger Marc Stamer. "I knew Charlie knew this. He had a huge heart.”
Stamer recalled one time when Morton gave a fellow firefighter — who was struggling financially — his car to help lessen the cost of a commute.
A former superintendent of the Big Bear crew said Morton at times used “colorful language” but never complained about work and was tough, but humble.
Morton’s fiancee, Monica Tapia — with whom he had a daughter — said Morton’s first message to her was: “Hello, I heard you were the woman of my dreams.” The couple were together for 10 years.
Tapia said despite the pain she felt after losing Morton, she felt at peace “because Charlie loved what he did” as a hotshot firefighter.
“No mountain, no accident, no wildfire can take away the love that Charlie gave me,” she said. “Charlie gave me his whole heart and I gave him mine.”
Ever the joker, Morton’s emergency documents listed one prominent person to notify family in case something happened to him, according to a quote from a Forest Service employee in the El Dorado report.
“Charlie’s emergency notification form said that he wanted [The President of the United States] to deliver the news,” the employee said. “Only Charlie …”.
Daily Press reporter Martin Estacio may be reached at 760-955-5358 or MEstacio@VVDailyPress.com. Follow him on Twitter @DP_mestacio.
This article originally appeared on Victorville Daily Press: New reports offer details about death of firefighter in El Dorado Fire