The firefighter statue in front of Rim Country Museum serves as a reminder of the unspoken danger that exists in Rim Country, that of the wildfire.
The statue pays tribute to those who protect our homes and the beautiful habitat that surrounds them, while also reminding us that some have paid the ultimate price in fighting the wildfire beast. As we celebrate Payson's 125th Anniversary, it's fitting that we look back at some of Rim Country's fiercest wildfires and those who perished while fighting them.
There have been 10 fire fatalities in Rim Country, according to the commemorative fire statue at Rim Country Museum. All of the fatalities have occurred north of the Control Road, tucked in beneath the Rim. The first fatalities on record are from 1961, which was a bad fire year in Rim Country. The problems started on June 15. A logging crew was working near Roberts Mesa, close to the Mead Ranch subdivision, when a loose spark ignited a fire. Over the next few days, firefighters fought furiously to get a handle on the fire, which would total approximately 2,500 acres.
On the first day of that fire, named the Roberts Fire, a young pilot lost his life. Chuck Cochrane was flying a 180 Cessna patrol plane, a former World War II fighting plane that had been converted to an air tanker. He was on his fifth and final run of the day when he crashed. Cochrane was the first of what would be three fatalities in a very deadly two-week stretch in Rim Country in 1961.
On the heels of the Roberts Fire came the Hatchery Fire, located in what Zane Grey referred to as Horton Thicket. While the Roberts Fire had been brought under control around June 19, thanks to the help of approximately 750 firefighters, lightning caused the Hatchery Fire to start. The Hatchery Fire quickly raged out of control and would approach the same size as the Roberts Fire.
If you drive around Payson, particularly the area around Bonita Street behind Safeway, you might notice a couple of street names: Kodz and Goodnow. Corky Kodz and Art Goodnow lived in that area, but unfortunately after the fire season of ‘61, they resided in a different place. They were helping point out where air tankers needed to dump their payload, when their plane clipped another. While those flying the other plane were unhurt, Kodz and Goodnow perished in the crash. It was indeed a deadly time in Rim Country.
A few years later, the Rim Country was once again struck by a major fire. While no fatalities occurred this time, the acreage burned was significant. A headline from the July 5, 1968 Payson Roundup declared: "Worst Fire Since 1961 Blackens 4,045 Acres." The fire originated near the Tonto Fish Hatchery and winds quickly pushed the fire up the Tonto and Dick Williams Canyons. This fire burned portions of the Tonto, Sitgreaves, and Coconino forests. According to the July 5, 1968 Payson Roundup, it was thought to have been started by a careless camper.
In 1989, a fire once again broke out in Horton Thicket. It was called the Horton Creek fire and would burn over 300 acres. In the midst of this fire, tragedy struck on the ground. A Zuni firefighter, Ernie Cachini, was struck and killed by lightning while fighting the fire on July 14. Tragedy had once again struck in Rim Country, but as it turns out, it was just a precursor to 1990.
Heat scorched Arizona in June of 1990. Record high temperatures were being recorded across the state and conditions were ripe for a major fire. On June 25, that's exactly what happened. A lightning strike near Dude Creek west of Bonita Creek ignited the dry timber and a fire was spotted around 2 p.m. The fire quickly grew from five to 10 acres at first report, to more than a 100 acres a couple of hours later. It had also climbed the Rim by that time, and a spot fire was located a mile east of the main fire.
To their credit, the forest service tackled this fire quickly. By midnight of the first day more than 42 crews had been ordered and a Class 1 team, the top type of firefighters, was to take control of the situation at 4 a.m., June 26. That hand-off was then delayed until that afternoon, creating a perfect storm situation that would lead to the death of six firefighters.
On the afternoon of the 26th, winds and dry thunderstorms kicked up and a crew of firefighters became trapped just west of Bonita Creek in Walk Moore Canyon. The group was split in two as the fire crossed a dozer line, and soon they had to deploy their fire shelters. When it was all said and done, six firefighters from Perryville Prison had perished, and a few others suffered significant burns.
Bonita Creek suffered numerous home losses that day, including the historic home of Jim Sumpter. Subdivisions in Ellison Creek also suffered losses as the fire marched eastward. Around 9 p.m. the fire was still at least three miles away from Tonto Creek, but the fire did not lay down that night and by morning, the granddaddy of historic losses had occurred. Zane Grey's historic lodge near Tonto Creek was nothing but ashes and a burnt chimney.
The Dude Fire was a learning experience for fire crews. They thoroughly studied the circumstances behind the fatalities in Walk Moore Canyon and also studied communication breakdowns that likely played a role in the fatalities.
The Dude Fire was the largest in Arizona history at the time, burning more than 25,000 acres. Sadly, the Dude Fire has long been surpassed as the largest in state history. In recent years Arizona has seen numerous fires of 100,000 acres or more. The worst of these fires occurred five years ago northeast of Payson. While it was much more of an event in the White Mountains, Forest Lakes and Heber-Overgaard were affected by the fires and Payson hosted some evacuees.
The Rodeo-Chediski was the combination of two human-caused fires. The Rodeo Fire was started by an out-of-work firefighter, while the Chediski was a signal fire from a lost hiker. This fire was so large that smoke from it could be seen in other states. It burned more than 460,000 acres, leaving a lasting mark on central eastern Arizona.