The Great, Angry Dude Fire

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Tonto Creek Adventures, Chapter 3

No one on Tonto Creek will ever forget the fateful summer of 1990 when what was dubbed "the great, angry Dude Fire" swept over the historic Zane Grey Lodge and several cabins built by pioneer settler Anderson Lee Haught. It also grazed the Tonto fish Hatchery.

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The Dude Fire consumed almost 30,000 acres of prime wilderness in three national forests, destroyed more than 63 structures and took the lives of six firefighters.

Each year during the extremely dry month of June in the Rim Country, my own memories of the Dude Fire are revived once again. That monster raged uphill from the southwest, consuming the forest, its wildlife, and even human lives in its path.

That fateful day was Monday, June 25, 1990. We were on the deck of our cabin along the East Verde River, several miles west of Tonto Creek, trying to keep cool in the 100-degree afternoon. The forest was tinder dry, but we were glad not to be in Phoenix where the temperature had reached 122-degrees, breaking records.

Suddenly a dry lightning strike hit about a mile east of us on Dude Creek. We were startled by the noise, and our fears were confirmed when, within the hour, a Forest Service observation plane flew over our house, soon followed by a bomber with its load 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 of our canyon, but our victory brought little joy in the wake of other's sorrow. We saw torrents of flame all too close, raging through tree tops, moving like a fiery dragon down one side and up the other of canyon after canyon. There was little sleep to be had that night, and we asked ourselves fundamental questions about 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 to hold in their grasp the streams, the forests, the 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 join to erupt in a line of fire that advanced like an army to the top of the ridge.

One by one, giant ponderosa pine trees exploded, shooting plumes of fire skyward like igniting rockets. One, then another, then five at once until a flash point would be reached and the entire hillside exploded in a firestorm. There the army of burning trees melded into a flow that looked like molten lava, spilling over the ridge and into the next canyon.

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.

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 radio announcement the siren blew and the order came. Now we had to decide what to take. We had built 27 years of memories into that place; the childhoods of our children and grandchildren were invested there, as were the labors of our hands and our hopes for retirement.

The radio crackled with orders for Kohl's Ranch on Tonto Creek to evacuate immediately. No hour's warning for them. We wandered about in a daze, our hour of grace ticking away. We grasped important papers and photographs; I grabbed the camera and began shooting pictures of every room in the house and work shop 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 Hotshot crews from several states, as well as National Guard vehicles and personnel for law enforcement, were coming toward us in a steady line.

A base fire camp had been set up on the Houston Mesa near Payson, and it quickly became a city of its own, servicing and directing 3,000 fire fighters, 14 helicopters, 14 water tenders, 10 air tankers, 12 bulldozers, 33 fire engines and 61 Hotshot crews. Paramedic crews from Phoenix and Idaho were there to treat the injured.

To be continued next week.

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