Dude Fire Remembered: 15 Years After The Blaze

Congressional record reveals little-known tribute to Payson

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By Bill Sahno
Special to the Roundup

Not too long ago the community of Payson, Ariz. was faced with a serious challenge by the tremendous forces of nature.

That challenge was to become known as the Dude Fire, a forest fire of tremendous proportions never before experienced by the citizens inhabiting the Mogollon Rim Region. It was to be the largest fire in Arizona history, threatening the very existence of the town of Payson and surrounding communities.

That terrible fire and the experiences associated with it are now history and the people and land have recovered. But the memory lingers for those who were here June 25, 1990 when lightening struck and disaster threatened.

Saturday is the 15th anniversary of the Dude Fire. It is fitting and appropriate to reflect upon the event so that those who were present might better remember, and so new residents will know what happened during that time.

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Dude Fire of June 1990 as seen from the air.

The event mustered the combined effort of many Arizonians to combat the ferocious fire and brought forth the true mettle of the local community in terms of caring and sharing during times of mutual concern for one another.

The citizens of Arizona, particularly those of Payson, demonstrated what it means to pull together and work as a team. The spirit of the community is perhaps best described in a little-known congressional record read by then Arizona Senator Dennis DeConcini on July 13, 1990 on the Senate floor as he addressed all present in a "Tribute to the Town of Payson."

Congressional Record Vol. 136 - Washington, Friday, July 13, 1990 - No. 89 [Page: S9683]

"Mr. President, as you know, the Western United States has been plagued by a severe drought for the past several years. To further compound the problem, central Arizona is experiencing record heat temperatures, with some temperatures exceeding 122 degrees. On June 25, 1990, a lightning strike ignited a fire near Payson, Ariz., which raged uncontrollably for over 7 days. The fire, the largest in Arizona's history, consumed 25,000 acres, land covered by pine and other high-country trees. The Dude fire, named after Dry Dude Creek, blazed along the Mogollon Rim, east of Payson. It jumped this 1,500-foot cliff in several places.

The effort to fight this fire was hindered by high temperatures, low humidity, erratic winds, and rough terrain. Because of these conditions, about 1,600 firefighters and support personnel were required to combat the blaze. They were assisted by aerial tankers, helicopters, and bulldozers.

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Six firefighters lost their lives fighting the Dude Fire 15 years ago.

Unfortunately, this fire injured five people and mercilessly claimed the lives of six individuals--five prisoners and one State employee, who had volunteered for firefighting duty.

During the 7 days it burned, the Dude fire destroyed over 75 structures, including a cabin built in the 1920's by Zane Grey, a popular Western novelist, whose writing was inspired by the picturesque scenery. The destructive fire also forced over 1,200 people to leave their homes and obtain shelter elsewhere.

Because of this catastrophic event, Gov. Rose Mofford declared Gila County a disaster area and approved an allocation of $40,000 for relief. In addition, Senator John McCain and I asked President Bush for a similar Federal disaster designation.

I want to to recognize the professional firefighters who, while anonymous to most of us, risk their lives every day to protect us. The Dude fire once again demonstrated why each and every one of us owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.

Mr. President, it seems that in times of emergency people really pull together and help one another. I am proud of the efforts of the citizens of Arizona during this time of need, particularly those of Payson. This Sunday, the town of Payson is recognizing the volunteers of that community whose contributions were essential to the firefighting effort. I know there are many others who deserve recognition but, in anticipation of this luncheon, I would like to share with my colleagues the behind-the-scenes effort of seven individuals whose service during this time of need was outstanding.

First, I would like to recognize the town clerk of Payson, Ray Frost, who devoted much of his time and energy to setting up evacuees in various homes and motels, organizing firefighters, and working with the Red Cross. In addition, the superintendent of schools, William Lawson, was instrumental in furnishing the schools' gymnasiums and other structures needed to shelter people. Russ Kinzer and Beth Leeds, employees of the school district, arduously worked to help process the thousands of evacuees. David Wilson, the Payson Chief of Police, played an integral role in coordinating the various organizations involved in fighting this fire. He served as a liaison with the National Guard, the Forest Service, the Red Cross, and the town council, providing them with important information on the conditions of the fire and the needs of the firefighters. Oli Zarnegin, the manager of the Walmart in Payson, displayed his generosity by providing vehicles to transport additional policemen stationed in three different cities who were desperately needed to serve with the National Guard. Finally, I would like to especially commend the Town Manager of Payson, Jack Monschein, who coordinated and supervised the entire project.

Mr. President, these are just a few examples of the courage and generosity of the citizens of Payson, Ariz. I am sure I could spend most of the day on the Senate floor sharing other instances that demonstrate the true spirit of voluntarism that exists in this community. I think, however, you get the picture of the kind people that live there. I ask that my colleagues join me in paying tribute to the citizens of Payson, Ariz. They certainly deserve it."

Indeed, such tribute can be considered a prestigious and genuine recognition of a noble effort by everyone involved and graphically describes what existed in a community faced with a tremendous challenge. Today, as he reflects, former Town Manager, Jack Monschein says, "there were so many that gave of their time, talent and effort during that time, I remember the tireless effort expended by Mr. Ray Frost who was everywhere doing all things." Monschein continues, " although a few were mentioned by name, there were so many involved it is impossible to name them all."

Those who were here at the time can take great pride in the accomplishments described on the Senate floor. Newcomers may be informed and take pride in their community. Everyone can continue to engender the spirit of voluntarism and the same caring and sharing as demonstrated during that time for those here today and those yet to come to our community. The "Tribute to Payson" graphically describes the very essence of the quality of life that we seek and wish to achieve for all our citizens.

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