Not Again: Deaths Recall Dude Fire Tragedy

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Editor’s note: The tragic deaths of 19 firefighters in Yarnell Valley this week came almost on the 23rd anniversary of the death of six firefighters in the holocaust of the Dude Fire. The Roundup is reprinting a story by editor Pete Aleshire recounting the deaths of the crew in the Dude Fire, which seemed eerily similar to the deaths of an entire squad of firefighters this weekend. With temperatures this week close to 100 and fire danger rated as “extreme” the lessons of the Dude Fire remain painfully current. The following account of the Dude Fire deaths 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.

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 crew.

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.

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. Although the Forest Service had responded instantly to the start of the blaze and marshaled 550 firefighters within hours, the fire blew up to 2,000 acres in the first 24 hours.

On the north side, the fire managers tried to keep the fire from climbing up the Rim and racing off through the forest. On the south side, they hoped to save Bonita Creek Estates by holding the fire north of the Control Road.

Working well ahead of the fire, bulldozers gouged two rough fire lines up Walk Moore Canyon to protect the subdivision. 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. But he assumed that if the fire turned they could escape down the dozer line to the Control Road a mile away. Neither the Perryville crew, nor the crews working above and below had a cleared safety area and the Perryville crew’s radios couldn’t consistently receive some of the key frequencies.

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, sucking in cool air as the superheated core rises.

Still, conditions seemed manageable. In fact, they should have dropped their tools and run for their lives at just about that moment, according to later reconstructions of the disaster.

Overhead, the superheated air hit a mass of cold air at 30,000 feet. The fire had been building this massive convection cell all morning as the fire built a five-mile-high pillar of superheated smoke to create a “plume dominated” fire for the first time on record.

At about 2 p.m., the hotshot crews above the Perryville crew reported a “frightening calm.” The cap of cooler air far above had overcome the energy in the rising column of smoke and flame, which now hesitated at the point of collapse. As the dead calm settled over the smoky forest, the hotshot crew scrambled for the safety zone they had.

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 lethal collapse, sending sustained 40- to 70-mile-an-hour winds blasting outward in every direction, creating 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. They ran for their lives at a speed of 7 miles an hour, despite all their gear. They could have outrun even a crown fire, but these flames advanced on them at 9 to 11 miles an hour.

Navajo Crew Chief Louis Sorrell 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. “The fire was right on our tail,” he recalled. “We could hear the roaring and crackling, running sound.”

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. They reached the Control Road just ahead of the flames and jumped onto fire trucks already starting to move.

But back up the canyon, 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 escaped. But halfway to the Control Road a terrifying wave of fire swept across the thin fire break ahead of them.

They 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 ordered 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, trapped in a narrow slot hemmed by brush and trees.

Down the slope, Denny saw Bachman 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.”

The screaming, roaring fire clawed at them, lifting the shelters almost off the ground, pounding them with burning debris. “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. 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 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 to find 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.

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 emerged and staggered down the hill toward 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 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 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. He 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.

Up above, members of the hotshot crew emerged from their shelters and 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. 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.

The deaths on the Perryville Crew caused great soul searching in the hardened ranks of the Forest Service firefighters. The deaths prompted the Forest Service to improve its communications and control systems and to redesign the fire shelters. The Forest Service has also cleared buffer zones around most Rim Country communities, to give firefighters a chance of stopping the next Dude Fire.

But in many ways, the danger has only grown more acute. The Dude Fire was then the largest fire in state history, but has been dwarfed by many fires since. In the meantime, many communities remain surrounded by thick, fire-prone forests, without fire-wise building codes or even a secondary escape route.

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.

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