Rising From The Ashes

Life 10 years after the Dude


"A place or condition suggestive of hell."

That's how Webster's Dictionary defines "inferno," the noun most commonly used to describe the Dude Fire by those who got a first-hand glimpse of its fury.

But there was something about this disaster that made it seem worse for those who lived through it than the comfortably consistent horrors one would expect to find in hell.

The Dude Fire was a fickle inferno a truth still evident in the area where the blaze did its most devastating work 10 years ago Sunday.

A survey of Bonita Creek Estates today reveals lush, green, wholly unscarred pine trees standing only a few feet from tall, black, limbless trunks.

Broad, flame-carved paths still rise straight up mountainsides some separated only by untouched belts of forest as narrow as a driveway.

Similar incongruities were apparent in the fire's immediate aftermath.

Back then, it was reported that the rear tires of a U.S. Forest Service 10-wheeler truck had been "melted off" but the cab and front tires were left intact. And shortly after one home was completely consumed by flames, chickens were seen pecking at the blackened ground.

That may well have been where James and Becky Sumpter's 100-year-old cabin stood until the Dude turned it and everything inside to smoldering dust.

Their neighbor's house, about 200 feet away, was unscathed.

The land, the ponds, the gardens and almost all of the trees around the Sumpters' homesite remained just as pristine as they were the day before the Dude was ignited by a single lightning bolt.

The only tree on the Sumpters' property that was destroyed was a giant oak that stood just a few feet from their front porch. It was a Rim country landmark the tree to which Zane Grey used to chain his pet bear.

Now it is a wide, three-and-a-half-foot tall stump the Sumpters are thinking about turning into a picnic table.

In the line of fire

"Please don't ask us how we felt," said Becky, who is laughing but only half-kidding. "I told the last reporter who asked me that question, 'What do you think? It was the happiest day of my life, you idiot!'"

"We were up on the top of the hill with the neighbors, watching the fire all afternoon," said James, thinking back to June 25, 1990. "It was almost five miles away. We never dreamed it would come this far. We thought we had nothing to worry about. Heck, there were about six fire trucks in the front yard, and they were all set up to pump water out of our pond."

The Sumpters' sense of security lasted until 2:30 the next morning, when all the power in the area was turned off.

"We decided, well, we'd better go," James said. You could hear the fire roaring like a freight train up the hill. But we still didn't think the place would burn."

The Sumpters' daughter, Susan, who works for the Forest Service, returned to the home around noon Tuesday, June 26 to feed the animals and retrieve James' arthritis pills. The house was still standing.

"But by the time she got back to town," Becky recalled, "they said, 'Susan, you've lost Bonita Creek.'"

James and Becky hadn't been concerned enough to take much with them.

"We just took a few clothes to last two or three days and emptied some filing cabinets into the back of our truck," James said.

"I grabbed a file box with our income taxes in it. I wish I'd just left it there," Becky said with a laugh.

When they returned home several days later, the Sumpters didn't find anything left of the home they'd purchased in 1957 except ashes, a free-standing chimney, some railroad ties and garden tools, plus two lawn mowers and a three-wheeler they had moved to an open area.

"I saw some wires sticking out of the mess and said, 'What are those?' Becky said. "They answered,'That's your piano.'

"But those were just material things," James said. "And the fire didn't take everything. I mean, we still owned the dirt. Since there was no place else to go, we decided right then that we're just going to rebuild."

The Sumpters' land was cleared of charred rubble by October, and their new home was completed the following February.

"It was nice to have a place to come home to," he said. "But for a while there, it didn't seem quite like home."

Wrong place, right time

In 1990, Roy Sandoval was not yet the principal of Payson Elementary School. He was spending his winters teaching high school biology, and was beginning his first summer working for the Forest Service's recreation crew. He had just completed his training in May, one month before the Dude Fire broke out.

Sandoval had seen the smoke that afternoon, and he saw a helicab heading in its direction. But it wasn't until about three hours later that he got the call from base station: "Be ready to go."

When that time came, Sandoval found himself in a 4-wheel-drive van, barreling toward Bonita Creek behind the Forest Service's largest fire engine.

"We were hauling hose to the closest place a vehicle could get to the cutting edge of the fire," he said. "That was our purpose all night, with no rest at all.

"About 4:30 or 5:00 (Tuesday) morning we ran out of hose. So we went down to where our engine was at Walk Moore Canyon ... and we all slept for an hour or two on the ground, on our fire packs."

Only slightly recharged, Sandoval and his crewmates moved to Ellison Creek, where the fire had just spread.

"It was big," he said. "It got so big that the guy in the Diamond Point tower freaked out and left. He said it was too much like 'Nam.

"We were at Ellison Creek all day and hadn't eaten. But we found a food drop back at Walk Moore Canyon on the very afternoon the (six firefighters died) about a half-mile away. It was purely by happenstance, no heroic efforts (that we weren't caught in the fire, too). I was just looking for a roast beef sandwich. I was in the wrong place at the right time."

But only briefly. It soon became a very wrong time to be anywhere near Walk Moore Canyon.

"It's weird. You think of danger as being loud. But fire isn't loud. It's just sort of like ... " Sandoval made a low whooshing noise. "And it just rolled over the hill, about 100 feet away as we were sitting there, eating.

"There were guys running away from the hill as fast as they could, screaming and crying, 'Get out! Get out!' Some of them were still holding their tools and tripping and falling on them.

"It got real chaotic. And my only thought was, 'I'm gonna get in my van, turn it around and leave.' Thinking that was the only way I could make myself feel I was in control.

"My partner was really scared, though. He lost it," Sandoval said, laughing at the memory the way people laugh at their bad dreams after they've had time to wake up.

A spark of community spirit

"It started out as just another fire," said Craig Swartwood, Payson's mayor on June 25, 1990. "But within two or three hours, everybody up here realized it wasn't just another fire. Nothing of that magnitude had ever happened up here before. It's something that no one who lived here at that time will ever forget.

"It was a really strange day. It was hotter than Hades, and there was just one cloud in the sky centered over where the Dude Fire started. It's funny. I'd swear that the fire generated its own weather. The day after (the single cloud appeared), it would generate lightning and thunderheads directly above itself I think from all the heat, turbulence and wind. It was bizarre."

Swartwood's most vivid recollection of the Dude Fire is of an incident that occurred the second day of the disaster during the same afternoon that six firefighters were killed in Walk Moore canyon.

"(Town leaders) had been invited to the firefighter's camp near the Shoofly Indian ruins," Swartwood said. "There were motor homes out there, tons of vehicles, and hundreds if not thousands of people.

"It was very surrealistic because you'd walk by these motor homes with generators blazing and great big satellite dishes and five or six steps beyond that, there were these large crews of Native American Hot Shots, with their hair in braids or hanging loose down their backs, carrying shovels and picks, and covered in soot and dirt. It was like you'd stepped back in time a hundred years."

Swartwood was at the camp to help plot the next day's firefighting strategy.

"We were probably there for 45 minutes. When we started, there was just kind of a light glow in the sky. But by the time we were done, you could see flames roaring out on the Dude. The man running the meeting said, 'Forget everything we just planned. Pull everyone off the fire lines right now.'"

In the wake of the Dude Fire, town leaders and business owners worried about its potentially disastrous economic impact on Payson. Ultimately, the fire's impact turned out to be both negative and positive and ongoing.

"To a minor degree, you saw a little bit of it just recently when the Forest Service closed the forests because it was so dry," Swartwood said. "That's certainly cutting down our tourism right now ... On the other hand, many people had to rebuild their houses, which probably helped our economy. And there are a lot of people today who come up to take the self-guided tour (of the Dude Fire area). So I think, on the whole, things have balanced out."

Swartwood also said he remembers observing a more personal sort of balance during the peak of the crisis.

"It's amazing how quickly and completely the community pulled together," he said. "Like any small town, there are factions up here. But for a moment in time, those factions went away. And I'm not sure that anybody realized it. They were too busy doing what had to be done."

Picking up the pieces

Strawberry resident Barbara Brandt is the Rim country's Red Cross coordinator. That was her job on June 25, 1990, too.

"I was on a road job in Globe," she said, "and my son called to say, 'Mom, you'd better get home. We're burning up. You can see the fire from Pine, and you can see it going up the hill. They're going to start evacuating people.'

"I came home, and the Red Cross opened up a shelter at what is now the middle school ... We had family services there. We talked to many clients who had lost everything. We saw what their needs were, placed them in motels, made sure they had food and clothes on their back.

"It was heartbreaking especially when you knew the folks. It could have been you, it could have been your next-door neighbor."

Brandt did not spend all of her time at the makeshift shelter. One day, she decided to see, first-hand and close-up, the cause of all the havoc.

"It was horrifying to see what fire can do. I was right there. I'd been out on national disasters, where you get there right after the disaster happens. But I'd never before experienced one as it was happening. It was just ... devastating."

Brandt said she walked away from that experience with more than a few life lessons.

"You realize that your life is ... the most important thing. You can lose all your possessions, your home, but you still have your life and you can rebuild from there."

She said she also learned that, no matter how safe you may feel, you should always be ready for the worst nature has to dish up.

"The potential for fire hazards we've seen this year didn't make me nervous; it made me more prepared," Brandt said.

"I now keep a box with all of my important things, papers, a set of clothing, which I can just grab and run. There's no time to run through your home thinking, 'I need this, I need that, I have to find that picture.'

"And you've got to be ready to evacuate. If the call comes, you may have 10 minutes, 20 minutes, an hour if you're lucky to get out of your home. So be prepared for it."

Fire facts

Before the Dude Fire was declared controlled 10 days after it started June 25, 1990, it scorched more than 24,000 acres of national forest and private property. It also:

burned 63 homes

turned the historic Zane Grey Cabin into ashes

damaged the Tonto Fish Hatchery

forced the evacuation of 1,153 people

cost $7.5 million to suppress

caused $12 million in damage

destroyed 5 percent of the Payson Ranger District, 29 miles of riparian habitat, 75 percent of the summer grazing range and enough timber to build 3,300 average-sized houses.

Sparked by a lightning bolt, the fire was first spotted at 1:50 p.m. Monday, June 25, off Dude Creek, northeast of Whispering Pines. Aggravated by erratic winds, extreme heat and dry fuel conditions, it grew to 300 acres within two hours.

The subdivision of Bonita Creek Estates, where James and Becky Sumpter live, was the first to be evacuated. By 6 a.m. June 26, the fire was out of control and had grown to 1,900 acres. Another thunderstorm pushed the fire to 5,000 acres later in the day, and overran Bonita Creek.

In the afternoon of that same day, only a couple of miles away, six firefighters were killed reportedly while trying to outrun a wind-whipped fire in Walk Moore Canyon.

The dead were James E. Ellis, 34; Joseph Chacon, 25; Alex Contreras, 33; James L. Denney, 39; Curtis E. Springfield, 24; and Sandra J. Bachman, 43. All but Bachman were volunteer firefighters from the Arizona State Prison at Perryville. Bachman, an employee of the state, was their supervisor.

By 1 p.m. Wednesday, strong winds caused the fire to again multiply in size to 21,000 acres.

But finally, on Saturday following the evacuation of 24 communities fire management teams were at last able to halt the Dude Fire's spread.

Staff Reports

Prepare for the worst

Wildfires often begin unnoticed. They spread quickly, igniting brush, trees, and homes. Reduce your risk by preparing now before wildfire strikes. Meet with your family to decide what to do and where to go if wildfires threaten your area. Follow the steps listed below to protect your family, home, and property.

Practice wildfire safety

Make sure that fire vehicles can get to your home. Clearly mark all driveway entrances and display your name and address. Report hazardous conditions that could cause a wildfire. Teach children about fire safety. Keep matches out of their reach. Post fire emergency telephone numbers. Plan several escape routes away from your home by car and by foot. Talk to your neighbors about wildfire safety. Plan how the neighborhood could work together after a wildfire. Consider how you could help neighbors who have special needs, such as elderly or disabled persons.

Protect your home

Regularly clean roof and gutters. Inspect chimneys at least twice a year. Clean them at least once a year. Keep the dampers in good working order. Equip chimneys and stovepipes with spark arresters. Use half-inch mesh screen beneath porches, decks, floor areas, and the home itself. Also, screen openings to floors, the roof and attic. Install a smoke detector on each level of your home, especially near bedrooms; test monthly and change the batteries at least once each year. Teach each family member how to use the fire extinguisher and show them where it's kept. Keep a ladder that will reach the roof. Consider installing protective shutters or heavy fire-resistant drapes. Keep handy household items that can be used as fire tools: a rake, axe, handsaw or chain saw, bucket and shovel.

Before wildfire threatens

Design and landscape your home with wildfire safety in mind. Select materials and plants that can help contain fire rather than fuel it. Use fire-resistant or noncombustible materials on the roof and exterior structure of the dwelling. Or treat wood or combustible material used in roofs, siding, decking, or trim with UL-approved fire-retardant chemicals. Plant fire-resistant shrubs and trees. For example, hardwood trees are less flammable than pine, evergreen, eucalyptus or fir trees. Create a 30- to 100-foot safety zone around your home. Rake leaves, dead limbs, and twigs. Clear all flammable vegetation. Remove leaves and rubbish from under structures and dispose of them properly. Thin a 15-foot space between tree crowns, and remove limbs within 15 feet of the ground. Remove dead branches that extend over the roof. Prune tree branches and shrubs within 15 feet of a stovepipe or chimney outlet. Ask the power company to clear branches from powerlines. Remove vines from the walls of the home. Mow grass regularly. Clear a 10-foot area around propane tanks and the barbecue.

Source: The American Red Cross

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