The Deadly Fires Of 1961

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Roundup file photo

The firefighter statue at the Rim Country Museum in Green Valley Park, a memorial to fallen firefighters, is one of the community’s few pieces of public art.

With a slate of cool temperatures recently, it’s easy to forget that June usually heats up, and as temperatures rise, the risk of a major fire increases. There have been some wicked fires in years past. There was Rodeo-Chediski in 2002 and the “angry Dude” in 1990. But when you look for a combination of multiple fires and air fatalities, 1961 was a year for the ages.

On June 15, 1961 a fire started near Roberts Mesa under Myrtle Point just a couple miles west of Tonto Creek. Apparently began with a loose spark from a logging crew in the area. Soon the fire was raging and aircrews rushed to attach the fire from above. It was late in the day when serious tragedy struck, as Ralph Fisher told in this clip from an article of his in the May 30, 1979 Payson Roundup.

“For young Chuck Cochrane, a career pilot with better than 3,000 hours of flying time behind him, it was his fifth and final mission of the day. He gunned for altitude… suddenly his radio of the old TBM took voice and asked if he knew that his engine was on fire.

“‘Yes, I am aware!’ reported the worried flyer.

“Suddenly the engine stuttered, coughed, stuttered again. Then the TBM cleared a low hill to the south and vanished at a sickening diminishing speed. I turned to gaze into the dense cloud of smoke watching another guided tanker bomb its target. I failed to see the beauty of the vivid sunset in the west… I failed to see the TBM rise over the ridges that would have assured a safe flight.

“It took nearly two hours to locate the scene of the crash. Crushed in a patch of oak, juniper and pine was the torn and burning remains of the “Turkey”. Broken wings embraced the wildflowers on the hillside. The big sail-like red and white tailing clinging to the giant pine tree like the broken kite of the lad next door.

“Chuck nearly made it. That is except for that lone pine, and the need for a spot to skip the plane in, with a shallower slope.”

The fire was finally stopped after about 2,000 acres had burned. Ironically, the acreage it covered later proved beneficial when the Dude Fire reached it in 1990.

Unfortunately though, Mother Nature wasn’t done with her attempt to clear the forest of unneeded underbrush. As crews from the Roberts Fire were waiting for transportation home, another fire broke out in the area. The Hatchery Fire quickly consumed acreage between Dick Williams and Horton Creeks north of today’s Tonto Rim Christian Camp. Then tragedy struck once more.

Less than a week earlier Art Goodnow and Corky Kodz had been helping guide Chuck Cochrane in and out of the Roberts Fire. One can imagine how they felt about the death of a co-worker. Now, they would become the central figures in another tragedy. Once again, Fisher tells the story.

“Art Goodnow and his observer Corky Kodz banked into the tall smoke cloud, gunned for altitude, radioed the new “hot spot” to the base camp, waited for the scheduled tanker approaching from the east, and started to ‘bird dog’ it into the target.

“Inside the torrential spiral the Cessna was hidden from the view of the pilot of another light plane that came from beneath the 180 clipping (the) tail assembly off in a shattering crash. Art and Corky died in the fiery crash. The other pilot guided the crippled plane to safety of the Payson airport.”

One week’s time: two fires, less than five miles apart; 3 fatalities, all out of the air. Indeed it was a brutal time, something acknowledged by a United Press International article at the time.

“Hundreds of firefighters worked in steep, rough country of Tonto National Forest 17 miles east of Payson today to hold in check a 500-acre blaze which had cost the lives of two men killed in an aerial collision.

“Hyman Goldberg, an assistant Forest Service supervisor, said ‘hot spots’ still threatened to break out into the timber-rich area. Flames had burned to the Mogollon Rim on a half-mile front.

“The Forest Service had not pulled any men and equipment from fire lines. There were 550 firefighters, eight bulldozers and 13 or 14 tankers on the fight.

“As the battle continued, federal investigators were on the scene to probe Wednesday’s collision of two ‘bird dog’ planes which killed Arthur G. Goodnow, about 40, and Constantine Kodz, 37, both of Payson.

“Their Cessna crashed after colliding with a T-34 carrying Howard Shupe, 38, of Glendale and Lou Parker, 36, of Boise, Idaho.

“Shupe and Parker were able to land their damaged aircraft at Payson, 17 miles away. Thus far, their description of what happened had not been publicly disclosed.

“Three persons have died in fire plane crashes within a week. Charles Cochrane, pilot of an aerial tanker, was killed in the 3,000-acre blaze, which hit the same forest area last week.

“The present fire, known as the Fish Hatchery blaze, burned to within three-quarters of a mile of last week’s fire.

“It was burning between Dick Williams and Horton Creeks within a half-mile of the American Baptist Camp, on the south.”

It’s worth remembering Rim Country’s other fire fatalities as the heart of fire season nears. A Zuni firefighter named Ernie Cachini died when struck by lightning in 1989 while fighting the Horton Fire, near those 1961 fires. Six firefighters died just west of Bonita Creek in the 1990 Dude Fire. They were: Sandra Bachman, Joseph Chacon, Alex Contreras, James Denney, James Ellis, and Curtis Springfield.

A memorial to those who have perished in Rim Country fires is at the Rim Country Museum in Green Valley Park.

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