The tragedy of the Yarnell fire that killed 19 elite Hot Shot firefighters rekindles horrible memories in those of us who vividly recall the Dude Fire that 23 years ago took the lives of six firefighters from a Perryville inmate crew.
The fire started June 25 northeast of Payson and before it was extinguished burned more than 24,000 acres and 60 homes including the historic Zane Grey Cabin.
I was one of two reporters assigned to cover the fire. I spent the first couple of days at the fire camp located just off Houston Mesa Road. The situation there was hectic, and somewhat chaotic as firefighters from around the country scrambled to begin their efforts.
Among the first people I spoke to at the camp was Mark Hanna, a PHS graduate, who was working the summer months as a Forest Service firefighter.
If memory serves me correctly, he was in the Walk Moore area, where the firefights died, on an ATV, delivering supplies.
Sensing the danger, he was able to maneuver his way out of the area and to safety.
During the first days of the fire, the Payson Ranger District’s No. 1 “Fire Dog” Pat Velasco was in charge of fighting the blaze and was obviously scrambling to coordinate the efforts of hundreds of freighters pouring into the makeshift camp.
Later, the forest service sent in an elite Type 1 crew to fight the inferno.
On the second or third day of the Dude, I was finally granted permission to shadow an Oregon-based firefighter crew during its efforts off the Control Road.
About midday, as we approached the Walk Moore Canyon area I noticed what I at first thought were large bundles of aluminum foil blowing in the wind.
Although I had taken the wildland firefighting course required to go along with the crew and had been taught how to deploy the fire blankets every firefighter carried, I didn’t at first recognize the objects as the protective blankets that we were told during the class were capable of withstanding temperatures of up to 1,200 degrees.
After noticing crew members pausing at the site as if to pray, mourn and show respect, I realized those were the fire blankets the perished crew had attempted to deploy as the Dude swept over them.
The crew members I was with were obviously shaken, but as the day progressed they continued to fight the fire with professionalism and dedication we have come to expect from firefighters
Today, the fire blanket I carried on my belt into the Dude remains on my desk at the office as a reminder of the frailty of human life.
As the lightning-caused Dude continued to grow from a small quarter-acre blaze, it turned into a crown fire advancing at great speed jumping from treetop to treetop ahead of the ground fire.
At the time, some were estimating the fire was traveling as fast at 50 mph as it destroyed thousands of acres of ponderosa pines, oaks and junipers.
After spending most of the day with the fire crew, I was relieved to hear that I was to be escorted out to the Control Road where a Forest Service truck would pick me up and return me to the fire camp.
Although I had covered several fires before the Dude, writing about the 1990 inferno was a gut-wrenching task knowing the lives it had taken and the devastation it had caused.
In news coverage of the Yarnell Fire, Prescott fire chief Dan Frajo — after learning of the deaths of the firefighters — is quoted as saying, “We’re devastated.”
In Payson, we remember that feeling well — we too were once as emotionally devastated as our Yavapai County neighbors.