Their fate was sealed five miles overhead as the top of the roiling mushroom cloud of hot air began to disintegrate.
But they didn’t know it — not yet, not down on the ground, with their chain saws, their sooty camaraderie and their transformed lives. They were young and strong and tough, with no concept of the holocaust of flames about to overtake them.
Down there, crawling across the smoking earth, the Perryville fire crew thought they had the monster chained and muzzled. They had worked all through the night with their shovels and axes and chain saws to firm up the double bulldozer line thrown across the path of the fierce Dude Fire to protect the evacuated homes of Bonita Creek Estates.
Big James Denny, 39, worked steadily. He’d been in trouble since he was nine, winding up finally in Perryville Prison. But friends said he was a changed man since landing a spot on the fire.
James Ellis labored down the slope. Quiet and popular, he was a soft touch for animals — especially the injured birds he regularly nursed back to health in his cell.
Assistant Warden Sandy Bachman, a “people person” just engaged to a deputy at the prison and respected by the men on the crew, supervised cheerfully, bearing the efforts and the oppressive heat lightly.
Up the slope, veteran firefighter Dave LaTour fretted about the only fitfully connected hand radios to keep track of the progress of the fire. An instructor for Rural Metro Fire Department, he’d fought the beast in every guise since 1978 — but still had no idea of what awaited the crew.
The 20th anniversary of one of the worst fire disasters in Forest Service history came to Rim Country last week, along with the smoke of distant fires and the opening of an exhibit on the tragic fire, at the Northern Gila County Historical Society’s museum in Green Valley Park. The year-long exhibit includes photographs and video of survivors’ recollections of a firestorm that transformed Forest Service firefighting techniques and equipment.
Eyewitness reports and investigations have provided a compelling account of that tragic day when the Dude Fire exploded. The fire ultimately consumed 30,000 acres — only a fraction of the later mega fires like the 600,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski Fire. But the ravenous fire that day behaved in new and frightening ways.
Moreover, current conditions offer an eerie echo of that disaster, with fuels right now as dry as they were then. The Rim Country huddles under the same pre-monsoon conditions, when boils of clouds can generate lightning without rain. Of course, on June 25, 1990, record heat added to the danger of dry fuels — with the temperature topping out at a record 122 in Phoenix and 106 in Payson.
On that grim day, the superheated air rose from the desert and broiled into thunderheads, that on June 25 started a fire near the top of the Dude Creek drainage off the Rim.
The following account of the tragedy comes from several Forest Service documents, which include accounts by witnesses and survivors. The major reports include the Accident Investigation Report prepared in 1990, a study by the National Weather Service on fire behavior in the Dude Fire prepared in 1998, and the 2007 Dude Fire Staff Ride, during which fire managers reviewed the fire on the ground in the company of several survivors. To prepare for that postmortem, Michael Johns, a former hotshot fire crew foreman and later a U.S. Attorney left a compelling, detailed account.
Those reconstructions demonstrated how small mistakes and the violent unpredictability of wildfires in extreme conditions overwhelmed even experienced, careful firefighters — and risks firefighters must run to protect isolated forest communities surrounded by thick forest.
Back in June of 1990, the Forest Service began marshalling firefighters and air tankers within hours of the first report of smoke. Some 550 firefighters were deployed to try to contain the fire within hours, but overnight the fire spread to 2,000 acres in the tinder dry fuels.
On the north side, the fire managers hoped to keep the fire from climbing up the Rim, jumping Forest Road 300 and spreading on into the unbroken expanse of trees atop the Rim. On the south side, they hoped to save Bonita Creek Estates by holding the fire north of the Control Road, which runs from Tonto Village to Pine, close along the base of the Mogollon Rim.
Working well ahead of the fire, bulldozers gouged two rough fire lines up Walk Moore Canyon to protect the subdivision, and a string of firefighter crews spent all night cutting brush and cleaning up the line. In theory, the fire line would force a big fire running through the treetops to drop to the ground where firefighters were there to stop it.
The 19-man Perryville crew took the middle reaches of Walk Moore Canyon, with a Navajo crew below them and a veteran hotshot crew above them.
The veteran LaTour knew the conditions were dangerous and unstable. He made sure that the crew knew their escape route lay down the dozer line to the Control Road, a distance of about a mile. Neither the Perryville crew, nor the crews working above and below had a cleared safety area into which they could retreat if the fire turned on them. They did not consistently post lookouts to warn should the fire turn, partly because it lay off beyond the ridge.
Moreover, the Perryville crew’s radios couldn’t consistently receive some of the key frequencies they needed to get weather updates and warnings.
At about noon, LaTour noted that the wind had picked up. He didn’t know that a Forest Service water-carrying helicopter would later hit furious downdrafts, losing 3,000 feet of altitude in a great whoosh of air. LaTour described the wind as “squirrely with some spots showing up in the drainage.” One of the most deadly tricks of a wildfire is the ability to generate its own winds, as cool air on the edge of the fire rushes into replace the superheated air rising in the core of the fire. These winds can carry embers a mile or more beyond the edge of the fire, so that a crew can find themselves suddenly surrounded.
Still, conditions seemed manageable — with the safety of the Control Road a short run for men in excellent shape. Fire commanders ceaselessly monitored conditions and adjusted their strategy. Meanwhile, LaTour and the crew redoubled their efforts to improve the dozer line to deny the beast the subdivision.
In fact, they should have dropped their tools and run for their lives at just about that moment, according to the timelines established in later reconstructions of the disaster.
Overhead, the superheated air rising from the core of the fire hit a mass of cooler air at perhaps 30,000 feet. The fire had been building this massive convection cell all morning, with the hot air rising and cooler air rushing in to take its place. As a result, an enormous mass of hot, smoky air had built up into a massive column five miles high overhead. The steep slopes on the face of the Rim dramatically intensified the effect. Analysis of the Dude Fire led to descriptions of this “plume dominated” fire for the first time.
At about 2 p.m., the hotshot crews near the top of the Rim above the Perryville crew reported a “frightening calm” in the winds. The veterans of wildland fires recognized the change and sensed its cause. The cap of cooler air far above had overcome the energy in the rising column of smoke and flame. As a result, this enormous mass of air had stopped rising and was about to collapse, sending winds howling in every direction. As the dead calm settled over the smoky forest, the hotshot crew scrambled for the cleared safety zone they had created and got ready to deploy their fire shelters.
Tragically, the Perryville crew remained isolated on a different radio frequency and was slower to recognize the gathering disaster.
The massive convection cell began a ponderous and lethal collapse, sending sustained 40- to 70-mile-an-hour winds blasting outward in every direction. These near-hurricane winds created 100- to 170-foot-long tongues of flame. The blast of wind and flame ignited whole trees in an instant, along with dense piles of debris and downed wood on the ground.
Down in Walk Moore Canyon, LaTour observed the change, as a blast of 50-mile-per-hour wind swept across the fire break. Immediately, the mid-day sky blackened, turning a glowering, dark orange “like a sunset,” LaTour later recalled.
Crackling over the radio, the crew heard a transmission from the Navajo crew below — “Get out. Get out.” A lookout for the Navajo crew further down the canyon had spotted a solid wall of 100-foot-tall flames rolling over the ridge toward them.
The Perryville crew immediately began running down the fire break toward the Control Road. The crew was strung out all along the break, so the 11 firefighters in the upper reaches of the canyon had twice as far to run as those closer to the road.
Burning embers the size of pine cones began raining down on them on all sides, hurled out ahead of the advancing wall of fire they could not yet see bearing down on their position.
They were now all in a race for their lives. Later reconstructions determined that even burdened with gear, they ran at a speed of about 7 miles an hour. Normally, that would be enough to outdistance even a crown fire. But these flames advanced on them at 9 to 11 miles an hour.
The crew members in the lower portion of the canyon ran for their lives down the slope. Louis Sorrell, crew boss for the Navajo crew working below, saw several members of the Perryville crew run past him, still carrying chain saws. He yelled at them to drop the heavy saws and keep going, then turned and headed down behind them. One of Sorrell’s crew stopped, panicked. Sorrell yelled at her to keep running.
“No, no,” she screamed. “Run for your life.”
Instead, Sorrell took her pack and yelled at her to run — following along close behind still carrying her pack.
“The fire was right on our tail,” he recalled. “We could hear the roaring and crackling, running sound.”
Somehow, they kept moving, although they stopped four times in the three-quarters of a mile run. Several crew members reported seeing a terrified elk running alongside them down the canyon. They repeatedly fell, got up, helped one another and scrambled down the slope — several literally unable to drop their tools. They reached the Control Road just ahead of the flames and jumped onto fire trucks already starting to move.
But the flames had cut the Perryville crew in half, trapping most of them in the upper reaches of the canyon. Those cut off were only 15 or 20 seconds behind those who escape, according to Johns’ reconstruction of the events.
The firefighters in the upper canyon got about halfway down to the Control Road when a terrifying wave of fire swept across the thin fire break ahead of them.
They stopped, staggered backward from the withering heat, then turned and started running back up the slope, away from the flames.
LaTour saw them running up the hillside toward him. “There was a solid wall of fire behind them. It was roaring and solid black,” he recalled later.
They all turned and began to run back up the hill, only to see another wall of flame advance on them from above, cutting off their only possible escape. LaTour estimated the speed of the flames at 70 miles an hour.
Perryville crew supervisor Larry Terra later said the 100-foot-tall wall of flame that bore down on them sounded like a locomotive, mingled with the sound of explosions as whole trees exploded into flame.
With the wall of flames just 75 yards away, LaTour gave the order for the crew to deploy their fire shelters, fire-resistant, laminated bags. They had about 16 seconds to get into their shelters before the fire would be upon them.
As LaTour radioed that they were deploying their shelters, the crew struggled to deploy the tents where they stood — although they were trapped in a narrow slot hemmed by brush and trees.
Down the slope, Denny saw that Bachman was struggling with her shelter and so ran back to her to help her deploy before he started work on his own, a heroic act of selfless courage.
LaTour later recalled, “As soon as I got into my shelter, I started talking to people. I could hear the crew from inside their shelters saying, ‘We’re going to make this, we’re going to be okay.’ They were trying to cheer each other up. They were sounding optimistic. We knew it was going to be a difficult situation, but I think we all thought we were going to walk away from it; we were going to make it. But when that first flame front hit us, everything changed.”
Within moments, the monster had them at its mercy.
“As soon as that first wave of fire hit us,” recalled LaTour, “I heard Curtis Springfield screaming. He was yelling that he couldn’t take it. 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 screaming, roaring fire clawed at them, lifting the shelters almost off the ground, pounding them with burning debris. Flames and smoke forced their way in the smallest slit of an opening.
“The winds were lifting the shelters up,” recalled LaTour. “Active flame and large amounts of burning debris came into my shelter and up against my body.”
He could hear the screams and shouts of the crew, each in their private hell all around him. Flames forced themselves into his shelter, burning him, as the layers of laminated fiberglass began to peel apart — something that only happens above 600 degrees.
“My personal feeling is that at some point, “ recalled LaTour, “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.”
Almost as soon as one front of flame passed over their huddled positions, another wall of flame roared in from another direction. At times during the carnage, LaTour said he could hear people moving around outside the tent. At one point, someone apparently stumbled over his tent. All told, three major sheets of flame passed over the firefighters, helpless in their dissolving fire shelters. LaTour said he could hear screams throughout the ordeal.
Somehow, LaTour clung to the decaying shelter, burned but alive.
After 45 minutes, the roar of the fire receded — and LaTour risked coming out of his shelter.
He confronted a scene of devastation and tragedy. Smoldering bodies lay scattered up and down the ravine. He found two empty shelters and several others that had come apart.
He found several of the crew members still in their tents.
Later reconstructions depicted the final moments of five of the crew members, as the temperatures in their shelters soared above 600 degrees — causing the adhesives to turn to gas and catch fire as the shelters began to come apart.
Sometime during the firestorm, Denny had emerged from his disintegrating shelter and staggered down the hill towards the Control Road, the temperature on his clothing reaching 800 degrees.
Nearby, Chacon also rose from his shelter — perhaps to help Denny. He was found lying on top of Denny, with his shelter pulled over on top of them both in a futile effort to ward off the inferno.
Curtis Springfield had also emerged from his shelter. He was found on his side, his arm reaching toward Denny’s abandoned shelter as though he’d been moving toward it through the flames.
Alex Contreras had also been exposed to 800-degree temperatures and died beneath his shelter, which had delaminated at 600 degrees.
Sandra Bachman was found sitting upright in her shelter, which had been delaminated and swirled about. Her hard hat was fused to the wall of the shelter as was the heel of one boot.
“We have to get out now,” LaTour told the surviving crew members. He had suffered second- and third-degree burns over 12 percent of his body, but concentrated on getting the survivors to safety. “It’s a tragedy. But we have to get out. Don’t look,” he said as they emerged, thinking of the sprawled, smoldering bodies of the other crew members.
They stumbled down the charred, smoking canyon toward the Control Road, through a moonscape of black and gray. Even big, downed logs had been completely consumed by the intense heat and flame.
Ellis, who loved animals so much, stumbled up the canyon toward them, badly burned, his clothing smoking, his shelter somehow draped over his head like a cape. “My shelter didn’t work,” he mumbled.
Soon, Ellis lurched and sat heavily. “I’m dead,” he said. Then he slumped over and rolled into a ditch, already dead.
All told, six of the 11 trapped members of the Perryville crew perished in the maelstrom.
But the survivors bore their scars the rest of their lives as well, particularly Donald Love, the assistant squad leader, who suffered survivor’s guilt and vivid, haunting nightmares for years to come.
Up above, the hotshot crew emerged from their shelters and several headed down into the smoke-filled canyon to help the Perryville crew, despite the danger of a new wave of fire and despite their conviction that no one below them could have survived.
They encountered Gregory Hatch, a member of the Perryville crew, with severe burns over 40 percent of his body, stumbling toward them through the smoke. Paramedics put him on a stretcher and hauled him up the slope, hanging desperately onto the stretcher even when the fire made another run on them.
Bob Scopa, a fire captain for the Yavapai Fire Department, recommended the four Glendale Fire Department paramedics for commendations, for continuing to haul the stretcher even when it seemed the flames would cut them off.
The deaths caused great anguish and soul searching in the hardened ranks of the Forest Service firefighters.
The incident prompted a major redesign of the shelters firefighters carry, a redesign that saved lives in repeated incidents in subsequent years.
The Forest Service has also moved to improve the command and control systems for major fires, which draw in units from fire departments throughout the region.
The incident became the classic example of a “plume dominated fire,” but even now the conditions that can produce such an event are so rare and unpredictable that they don’t automatically prompt fire crews to pull back.
The Forest Service has also spent the past decade working to clear buffer zones around forest settlements like Bonita Creek Estates. The Payson Ranger District has in recent years created about 17,000 acres of buffer zones around Payson, Pine, Strawberry and other forest communities, but is still struggling to complete buffer zones about twice that size.
Such isolated forest communities present a desperate challenge for firefighters, as the Dude Fire demonstrated so tragically.
But mostly, the Dude Fire remains a grim warning for everyone who lives in Rim Country, a glimpse of the monster that stalks the region.
Of course, in between the lines of that tragedy and miscalculation lies another message, this one a testimony of redemption and courage.
It lies in LaTour’s desperate calls to his crew to stay in their shelters, even as the flames forced their way into his tent.
It lies in the moment James Denny gambled away his life to help a prison guard get her shelter open.
It lies in the moment Joseph Chacon threw himself atop Denny as the flames closed in.
It lies in the moment four paramedics bent down without releasing their grip on Hatch’s stretcher, as the flames roared toward them.
And so it lies in the end, to the survivors, to neither forget, nor to squander, such lives, such courage.