Dude Fire: What Did We Learn?


Firefighters from across Arizona and New Mexico gathered last week at the Best Western Payson Inn to discuss what was learned from the Dude Fire, started by a lightning strike 10 miles from Payson on June 26, 1990.

The Dude Fire is considered to be one of the worst forest fires in Arizona's history.


Payson District Ranger Ed Armenta

Payson District Ranger Ed Armenta said the discussion was much like a military staff ride -- where soldiers return to the scene of the battle to examine what went well and what went wrong.

By doing this, Armenta said, contributing factors can be examined and lessons can be learned for the future.

An initial staff ride on the Dude Fire was completed in 1998, but was not formalized.

Armenta said they would like to put what was learned from this fire onto the Internet so firefighters can access the stages and sites, and have a narrative of what went on at the time.

The biggest lesson learned from the Dude Fire was what can happen when agencies do not have good communication.

"It sounds like a no-brainer," Armenta said. During the Dude Fire, some firefighters were on different frequencies, while others ended up in dead zones where there was no possible communication.

They also learned that what time of day management changes shifts is important and can make a big difference in the containment of a fire, Armenta said. In retrospect, a mistake was made during the Dude Fire because management teams changed in the afternoons during the heat of the day, when fires are most active.

After discussing the issue, firefighters now believe that the transition of management teams should take place in the morning, perhaps around 6 a.m., Armenta said.

Firefighting teams should have the time to review the fire and to get their feet on the ground, before they begin to battle the blaze, Armenta said. When facing a wildfire, he briefs firefighters when and where they are going to take over in fighting the blaze.

The LCES rule, now used by wildfire fighters across the nation, was developed by the Hotshots superintendent at the Dude Fire. The rule states, "LCES should be established before fighting the fire: Select Lookouts, set up a Communications, choose Escape routes and select Safety zones."

"(LCES steps) are in the back of our minds at all times," he said.

Six people died in the Dude Fire. Five of them were inmates sent to fight the fire from the Arizona State Prison Complex in Perryville. One of them was Sandra Bachman, administrative assistant to the Deputy Warden at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Perryville.

Bachman was posthumously inducted into the American Police Hall of Fame in Miami, Fla. and the CPO Foundation in Sacramento, Calif. in September 1990. In October 1991, Bachman was inducted into the Firemen's Hall of Fame in Maryland. On May 8, 1997, a memorial to her and another fallen officer was dedicated at Perryville State Prison.

Staff rides are usually done only when there are fatalities, he said. "We want to learn from our mistakes, and that is what this is all about," he said.

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