The Great, Angry Dude Fire Of 1990, Part 2



Tonto Creek Adventures, Chapter 3

Editor's note: This is Part Two of Stan Brown's "The Great, Angry Dude Fire" that began in last week's Rim Review.


A forest fire does crazy things, jumping some houses to leave them untouched while utterly destroying others.

When we arrived in Payson, smoke clutched the low-lying town 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 (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.

Among 1,200 other forest dwellers processed that day, we were graciously given a phone number that went directly to the base camp. The invitation was 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, between Tonto Creek and the East Verde.

Bonita Creek homes and the historic Pyle Ranch had been engulfed by the firestorm, and six firefighters lost their lives. A house owner from Bonita Creek spoke on television a few days later, standing in the ashes of what had been his home.

"All of this is only material," he was saying bravely. "It's those who lost their lives ..." His eyes flooded with tears and he cut off his words to hold back a sob.

When the "all clear" was given 10 days later, we returned to Payson and checked in with the Red Cross to receive our "Evacuee Entry Permit." The act included signing a release for all government entities from any liability for our safety and welfare. With us in line to receive permits were those who knew they were returning to plots of ashes and others who did not know what they would find.

A forest fire does crazy things, jumping some houses to leave them untouched while utterly destroying their neighbors. Those remaining structures stood like islands in a sea of white ash.

As we drove into the uplands along the river we realized that the fire, while controlled, was certainly not out. Hot spots smoldered everywhere, lying in wait for new winds to entice the flames forth again.

Fire crews, looking like coal miners ascending from the earth, were everywhere. They were fully equipped and putting out the embers as they patrolled old fire lines. We approached our unscathed house and saw that the Rim was grossly charred. Helicopters continued to ply their water buckets from lakes on the Rim to remaining hot spots.

We followed on with our eyes into a corner of the canyon where it hovered over a column of rising smoke. After dumping its load of water on the target with astonishing accuracy, the big bird climbed up and out to get another load.

Time and again we felt overwhelmed with gratitude for the network of public and private servants who made community life possible in this remote forested Eden. Power and fire companies, pilots, police, soldiers, medics, radio broadcasters, the National Forest Service, and private contractors were all involved to make us realize our interdependence. Such a realization makes the payment of taxes and utility bills a cause for rejoicing rather than complaint.

I hiked up the East Verde River and met a Hotshot crew from Portales, N.M. Rolled up beside the trail were more than 3 miles of fire hose that the firefighters brought from the fire line. Many crews like this one walked the line each day to deal with hot spots.

They would be bussed to the top of the canyon along the old General Crook Military Trail, and walk the river canyon down to a point near our cabin. There, at the end of the day, they boarded a bus and were taken back to base camp, only to repeat the routine the next day.

The embers of the fire often followed the roots of old oak or juniper trees deep into the ground, smoldering and waiting to erupt again.

As this crew prepared to board their bus their supervisor gave me a memento -- his copy of the orders for that day's shift. It was 19 pages long, including topographic maps with division breaks noted, bulldozer lines, drop points, known hot spots and other legends. I was profoundly impressed at the efficiency of this government agency that so often endured the wrath of ranchers for their strict controls, and environmentalists for lack of them.

It wasn't long after the fire that the monsoon arrived, with its two-faced personality. The rain was sorely needed to dampen the forest, but the lightning and wind could start a conflagration all over again.

Exploring up the river into the burn area I discovered grass sprouting from the ashen canyon slopes, so soon after the rains began. The same helicopters that had carried water buckets had dropped tons of grass seed in the hope that the grass would take root before the summer rains turned the ash into a concrete-like cover on the forest floor.

We all knew without doubt there would be floods, and silt from the inevitable erosion would pollute the streams and watersheds. We waited in fear and trembling for this aftermath of the giant forest fire.

One of the firefighters I met that day on the river was named Goseyen, a San Carlos Apache. He had shared with his fellow Hotshots a "Wise One Clan Song" that was printed on the last page of their orders of the day.

"Fire, a symbol of prayer / climb a mountain, gather nature's wastes, / build a huge, angry fire; / stretch nature's skin and cover a hollow stump. / Beat the stretched skin to your heart's rhythm. / Chant a prayer and fill the valleys / with echoes of your prayer. / Feel your spirit revive; yell out an angry scream / To chase evil spirits away. / Be one in spirit with the Great Almighty One above. / The fire is there to show your spirit's revival. / A huge, angry fire is a good sign."

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