This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Dude Fire, a fire that burned numerous homes and killed six firefighters north of Payson under the Rim.
For me the anniversary has particular significance. I was 10 years old when the fire occurred and the fire came within a quarter-mile of my family’s place in Collins Ranch. I drive through an area burned by it every day and have seen the slow recovery process firsthand. Here’s a different perspective on the fire.
The Dude Fire started on Dude Creek west of the Bonita Creek area. It was lightning caused and spotted on the afternoon of Monday, June 25, 1990. It continued to grow that afternoon and that night, Bonita Creek was evacuated. The Forest Service jumped on this fire pretty quickly. A Class 2 team came on that night and a Class 1, the best type of crew, was ordered and was initially to take over the fire early Tuesday morning.
As for me, I think I heard something about the fire on the news that night, but it wasn’t really on my family’s radar until the next day.
Tuesday, June 26, 1990 was a day that will forever be remembered in this area. A perfect storm of events came together, which ultimately resulted in the loss of six lives and numerous homes. Record heat was a huge problem. The Phoenix area hit an all time high of 122 that day and Rim Country had similar record-breaking temperatures with Payson reaching 106.
The handover from the Class 2 team to the Class 1 team that was supposed to occur at 4 a.m. was postponed until the early afternoon — a mistake in timing that the fire crews learned from. Afternoon is typically the most active time of day for a fire and to have such a significant changeover occur at that time was a bit unwise. On top of it all, you had the monsoonal weather pattern starting to build which set up the perfect storm.
“It’s just like a big furnace, a big blowtorch kind of effect,” said Fire Information Officer Jim Paxon in a Phoenix Gazette newspaper article published June 27, 1990. “It built its own thunderhead from the fire. That was a 40,000-foot vertical column (of clouds), five to six miles across.”
This thunderstorm changed things.
I have a neighbor, Bob Ogden, who retired a few years ago from Coconino Fire. Remember, Coconino National Forest is on top of the Rim, so those crews have a role there. He said that normally they’d let fire run up the Rim and then they’d chop it at the top. What happened in the Dude Fire that they hadn’t really seen before is that the thunderstorm came in and pushed it right back down so it came running down those canyons. And of course, that led to tragedy.
A group of firefighters was working in Walk Moore Canyon west of Bonita Creek building fire lines. As the fire ran back down, they were trapped and had to deploy fire shelters. Six firefighters died and a number of others were injured. One of the most compelling accounts is from Dave LaTour who survived the incident. This clip is from the Fall 2002 Fire Management Today.
“I was shouting almost constantly through the whole event, telling everyone to stay in their shelters, to stay down. But quite frankly, when the flame fronts were passing over us, the sound that we heard was indescribable. It was so loud that — beyond somebody screaming right next to you — you really couldn’t hear anything else.
“The winds were lifting the shelters up. Active flame and large amounts of burning debris came into my shelter and up against my body. My personal feeling is that at some point, everyone’s shelters were breaking down and being lifted up. People were being burned to the point that they thought they were going to die. There was a lot of screaming and I realized people had gotten up and moved.
“But as soon as they got out of their shelters — that was it.”
The six firefighters who died were James L. Denney, James E. Ellis, Curtis E. Springfield, Joseph L. Chaco, Alex Contreras and Sandra J. Bachman.
I watched the blow up on the news in the Valley. At that point my family realized that our place was in danger. It was still a few miles away, but this fire was running and if it was erupting like this in the early afternoon, it was going to be pretty wicked by night fall. My dad decided to go up that evening to check on things. At about 8:30 he looked at the fire from a point on Forest Road 29 and felt pretty confident that the fire was not going to get to us. It was still over at Burnt Point, so he didn’t take much out of our place. He went to the Double D in Tonto Village and at about midnight, Tonto Village was evacuated.
In three hours the fire had run eastward and raced around Collins and Mead Ranch. Sure enough, by morning, Zane Grey’s Cabin near Tonto Fish Hatchery was gone as well.
Thankfully, history shows that the Dude Fire seemed to slow down a bit after that terrible Tuesday. However, at the time, we didn’t know. Information was a bit scarce and when Thursday’s Arizona Republic came, it showed a shocking picture. It was of the meadow below us, the same meadow that Zane Grey once owned, having bought it from Sampson Elam Boles in 1923. We thought our place was gone at that point.
A week-and-a-half later as the fire was being wrapped up, we were allowed back in. Our place was still standing, the fire having come within a quarter-mile, but being held at the very meadow we had seen on the front page of the Arizona Republic.
One of the neighbors in Collins Ranch had seen their pig-shaped stump on CNN and found government boxes of water on their front porch. Their property was a little singed, but otherwise no worse for wear.
The most striking sight for us was what we call “cattle guard hill” on FR 29. The fire hit particularly hard in there and when we drove through at night, my parents told me that the barren trees reminded them of winter in Wisconsin, even though it was the middle of summer.
The Dude Fire burned approximately 28,480 acres and cost $7,500,000 to fight. Six lives, and 75 structures were among the losses and 1,153 people were evacuated. At the time, it was the largest fire in Arizona history. Sadly that is a distinction that was significantly surpassed a few years ago with fires like the Willow Fire south of Payson and most notably, the Rodeo-Chediski Fire northeast of Payson.
The firefighters who died in the Dude Fire did not die in vain. The Dude Fire has become one of the most studied fires and there is now a firefighter staff ride in the area where the lives were lost. It is designed to teach participants how to avoid fatal mistakes that were made. Materials for the Dude Fire staff ride can be found on the Web at http://www.fireleadership.gov/toolbox/staffride/lsr11_stand1.html.
More information about the Dude Fire, as well as two area fires in 1961 that resulted in fatalities, can be found in my book “Zane Grey’s Forgotten Ranch: Tales from the Boles Homestead” and also in an exhibit at Rim Country Museum in Payson.