Fires In Rim Country

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June has now arrived, which means a couple of things: one — our summer rains or “monsoons” are just around the corner and two — fire season has arrived in Rim Country. Here’s a look at some of the more notorious fires in Rim Country.

If one had to come up with a “big three” of fires in the region it’d be pretty easy: Dude Fire, Rodeo-Chediski and Willow, all three of which consumed a lot of forest land near Payson. Yet there were also plenty of fires before those just as there will be plenty more in the future. “Big” is a matter relevance in many cases, as this clip from the July 6, 1948 Arizona Daily Sun shows.

Big Tonto Fire South of Here Under Control

Started Friday By Lightning

Payson, July 6 - (AP) - A forest fire that spread across 3,000 acres on Mazatal Peak, 100 miles south of Flagstaff, 15 miles southwest of Payson, was under control today.

A crew of 75 men was doing mop-up work and patrolling to prevent new outbreaks.

The United States Forest Service sent an aerial crew from Deming, N.M., for observations duty. The crew also dropped food to firefighters.

The fire started Friday from lightning. At the height of the blaze 160 men were battling it. Dan W. Beck, regional fire chief of the Forest Service, directed the men.

The fire was spotted immediately but the location was so hard to reach that crews were delayed in getting to the scene. It was a 12-mile pack trip from the nearest base camp.

It was estimated a full day would be required to circle the fire area on horseback, the terrain is so rugged.

It was impossible to use heavy equipment. Hand tools were employed.

The damage was severe as much of the vegetation was burned from the peak of the watershed. Tonto and Rye creek and the Verde River get water from this peak.

A pair of fires in 1961 sent shockwaves through the area. The Roberts and Hatchery fires consumed over 3,000 acres combined and resulted in the deaths of Chuck Cochrane, Art Goodnow, and Corky Kodz, the latter both residents of Payson. Cochrane was an air tanker pilot on the Roberts Fire while on his final run of the day. Goodnow and Kodz were in a “bird dog” plane that crashed with another while working on the Hatchery fire. Both fires were located northeast of Payson near Tonto Creek. The Roberts fire was reportedly started by a chain saw spark while the Hatchery fire was lightning caused. Both fires occurred during the second half of June.

In 1968, fire erupted that topped the size of the 1961 fires. Once again it was in the Tonto Creek area in late June. This time over 4,000 acres burned, topping the 1961 fires. Yet these fires were just a warm up for what would come later. The ’70s and most of the ’80s were relatively quiet, though there was a fatality on the Horton fire in 1989, Ernie Cachini. The stage was set though for major problems.

The year 1990 was preceded by years of drought and forest mismanagement. A bad situation was made worse by record-setting heat near the end of June. Sure enough the spark came from lightning on Dude Creek and by the morning of June 26 subdivisions were being threatened. That afternoon the fire exploded near Bonita Creek, killing six firefighters in the process. The fire continued to rage and later burned Zane Grey’s famous cabin near Tonto Creek. By the time the fire was put under control, it had burned over 25,000 acres, making it the largest in Arizona history at the time.

In 2002, yet another fire impacted Rim Country. An arsonist started a fire on June 18 on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation and a stranded motorist started a signal fire on June 20. Both fires quickly grew in size and joined together on June 23. The fires became known as the Rodeo-Chediski fire and became national news. The Heber-Overgaard area suffered a number of structure losses and Show Low to the east barely escaped being overrun by the fire. The Rodeo-Chediski fire, at over 450,000 acres, became the largest fire in Arizona history.

Just two years later, the area was rocked again by a major wildfire. Out of all the major fires in the region, this one became Payson’s closest brush with danger. The Willow fire was yet another late June fire sparked by lightning. It started June 24, 2004, and was located 17 miles from Payson in the Mazatzal Mountains. Before it was all said and done, it made a run at Payson and Pine before turned away by brave firefighters, and burned approximately 119,500 acres.

Outside of Rim Country there were a number of other “landmark” fires in the early 2000s that burned more than 100,000 acres. Since that time a number of fuel reduction programs have been put in place to try to avoid any more “epic” fires. Historically though, fire facts remain the same. June is a very dry month in the region and folks need to respect the fire restrictions put in place as human-caused fire events can easily occur.

Come late June, the dry thunderstorms that often precede monsoon season, pose a risk and those who live in the region outside of Payson need to be aware. And let’s hope that there’s no more history made on this topic this year.

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