As the Indian Fire engulfed Prescott homes, and hundreds of families were evacuated to the local middle school, Rim country residents were cruelly reminded of their own trauma during the huge Dude Fire.
My own memories were dredged from that not-so-distant Monday, June 25, 1990. We were on the deck of our Rim Trail cabin trying to keep cool on a 100-degree afternoon. The 122-degree heat in the Valley was breaking all records, and the forest was tinder dry, as it is this year. The dry lightening strike hit about a mile east of us on Dude Creek. We were startled, and our fears were confirmed when, within the hour, bombers were flying over our house with their loads of fire retardant.
During the next 24 hours the fire got completely out of control, ultimately consuming almost 30,000 acres of prime wilderness in three national forests, destroying over 63 homes and buildings and taking the lives of six firefighters. With our neighbors we kept anxious vigil, running to nearby knolls every few hours to observe the fire's progress.
We were grateful the winds took it in the opposite direction from our canyon, but our victory brought little joy in the wake of others' sorrow. We saw torrents of flame all too closely, raging through treetops, moving like a fiery dragon down one side and up the other of canyon after canyon.
We got little sleep that night, asking ourselves fundamental questions about our family values. What would we save and what would we give up?
By Tuesday morning, the Dude Fire had taken on a life of its own, creating its own weather. Everything around us was thick with white ash and the air was heavy with smoke. Rushing again to a high point, we could see flames raging with vengeance over the great arms of rock that reach out from the Mogollon Rim grasping streams, forests, animals and the homes of families.
In some places the movement of the fire seemed slow, a point of red-yellow flame here or there. Then suddenly all those points would erupt in a line of fire and advance like an army to the top of the ridge, spilling over like molten lava. One by one, giant Ponderosa pine trees exploded, shooting plumes of fire skyward like rockets igniting. One, then another, then five at once until a flash point would be reached and the entire hillside exploded in a firestorm.
Local radio station KMOG stayed on the air 24 hours a day to update everyone and pass along evacuation orders. At 2:30 Tuesday afternoon, just 24 hours into the battle, KMOG announced the alert for our Rim Trail community. We were to get ready and, if the sheriff's car came through broadcasting the order to evacuate and blowing a siren, we had one hour to get out!
Within minutes of that announcement, the siren blew and the order came. Now we had to decide what to take. We had by that time built 27 years of memories there. The childhood of our children and grandchildren was invested there, too, as were the labors of our hands and our hopes for retirement.
The radio was crackling with orders for Diamond Point and Kohl's Ranch to evacuate immediately. No one-hour warning for them.
We wandered about in a daze, our hour ticking away, grasping important papers and photographs. I grabbed the camera and began shooting pictures of every room in the house and workshop in case I needed an inventory for the insurance company. Shortly after 3:30 p.m. we headed out of the canyon, looking wistfully back at our home and knowing we might be seeing it for the last time.
The prescribed evacuation route took us west along the control road toward Pine. Fire trucks and Hot Shots from several states, as well as National Guard vehicles and personnel from law enforcement, were coming toward us in a steady line. A base fire camp had been set up on the Houston Mesa, and it quickly became a city of its own servicing and directing 3,000 firefighters, 14 helicopters, 14 water tenders, 10 air tankers, 12 bulldozers, 33 fire engines and 61 Hot Shot crews. Paramedic crews from Phoenix and Idaho were there to treat the injured.
When we arrived in Payson, smoke clutched the low-lying town in its grip and white ash accumulated everywhere. The town was already rallying to take food and essentials to the base fire camp, and provide shelter for those being evacuated. We were directed to the junior high school (now Rim Country Middle School), where Red Cross volunteers assigned shelters to those who had nowhere else to go.
We were required to register, so it could be noted we were safely out of the danger area. About 1,200 of us forest dwellers were processed that day, and graciously given a phone number that connected directly to the base camp. We were invited to call as often as we desired for updates on the fire and our home areas.
Later, in piecing together events, we realized that as we packed our car and left the canyon, something terrible was happening a few miles to the east. The Bonita Creek homes and historic Pyle Ranch had been engulfed by the firestorm, and six firefighters had lost their lives. A home owner from Bonita Creek spoke on television a few days later, standing in the ashes of what had been his home.
His eyes then flooded with tears and he cut off his words to hold back a sob.
NOTE: A second article about regional history can be found each week in The Rim Review, available in front of the Payson Roundup building at 708 N. Beeline Highway and at selected locations around the area.