The 1961 Roberts Fire

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In 1961 this region was hit by two significant wildfires, both of which had fatalities, and both of which were located in the heart of the area Zane Grey frequented.

The Roberts Fire was human caused and started June 15, 1961. Just after it was brought under control, lightning started the Hatchery Fire.

Let’s focus though on the Roberts Fire, with some new details picked up at the National Archives in Denver.

In my book “Zane Grey’s Forgotten Ranch: Tales from the Boles Homestead,” I state that the Roberts Fire was caused by loggers working in the area. I probably had picked up this information from Ralph Fisher, a noted writer at the time who spent a lot of time in that area of the region.

Yet I now know that this fire was investigated and that they never conclusively found the loggers to be the cause. There was an investigation and the loggers were found innocent.

Let’s take a closer look at the details of the fire.

According to a Forest Service trespass report, the Roberts Fire was discovered around 11:30 a.m. by a log loading crew of Kaibab Lumber. Approximately 10 minutes later, lookouts at Diamond Point and Colcord reported the fire.

The Kaibab loggers attacked the fire and by 12:30 p.m. a helitack was made. Unfortunately, the drought index was at 98 and by 1 p.m. the rate of spread was 40.

Forestencyclopedia.net defines rate of spread as “the horizontal distance that the flame zone moves per unit of time (feet per minute).” The fire quickly seemed to get out of control.

The following day, as the fire marched eastward, tragedy struck. Ralph Fisher described what happened 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.”

The Roberts Fire ultimately burned over 2,000 acres. A perimeter map of the fire from the National Archives accompanies this article. It should be noted that the base map is an older map — probably out of the 1930s, as Norton was long gone from the homestead at the left edge of the fire (today’s Mead Ranch). The “Timber Road” is roughly today’s FR 29 and was not made a main line road until the 1970s. This is the first perimeter map that I’ve been able to find of any of these old fires, and it was found at the National Archives Denver office as part of the investigative report.

The Hatchery Fire followed on the heels of the Roberts Fire in 1961 and resulted in two fatalities: Art Goodnow and Constantine Kodz, who were providing aerial support on the fire. It was a deadly time in the region.

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