Dude Fire Remembered: 23 Years After The Blaze

Congressional record reveals little-known tribute to Payson

This cabin on the Mogollon Rim was one of the structures destroyed by the Dude Fire in 1990.


This cabin on the Mogollon Rim was one of the structures destroyed by the Dude Fire in 1990.


A few years ago Payson was faced with a serious challenge by the tremendous forces of nature.

That challenge was to become known as the Dude Fire, a forest fire of tremendous proportions never before experienced by the citizens inhabiting the Mogollon Rim region. It was to be the largest fire in Arizona history at that time, threatening the very existence of the town of Payson and surrounding communities.

That terrible fire and the experiences associated with it are now history and the people and land have recovered. But the memory lingers for those who were here June 25, 1990 when lightning struck and disaster threatened.

Tuesday, June 25th is the 23rd anniversary of the Dude Fire. It is fitting and appropriate to reflect upon the event so that those who were present might better remember, and so new residents will know what happened during that time.

The event mustered the combined effort of many Arizonans to combat the ferocious fire and brought forth the true mettle of the local community in terms of caring and sharing during times of mutual concern for one another.

The citizens of Arizona, particularly those of Payson, demonstrated what it means to pull together and work as a team. The spirit of the community is perhaps best described in a little-known congressional record read by then Arizona Senator Dennis DeConcini on July 13, 1990 on the Senate floor as he addressed all present in a “Tribute to the Town of Payson.”

Congressional Record

Vol. 136 - July 13, 1990

“Mr. President, as you know, the Western United States has been plagued by a severe drought for the past several years. To further compound the problem, central Arizona is experiencing record heat temperatures, with some temperatures exceeding 122 degrees. On June 25, 1990, a lightning strike ignited a fire near Payson, Ariz., which raged uncontrollably for over 7 days. The fire consumed 25,000 acres, land covered by pine and other high-country trees. The Dude fire, named after Dry Dude Creek, blazed along the Mogollon Rim, east of Payson. It jumped this 1,500-footcliff in several places.

The effort to fight this fire was hindered by high temperatures, low humidity, erratic winds, and rough terrain. Because of these conditions, about 1,600 firefighters and support personnel were required to combat the blaze. They were assisted by aerial tankers, helicopters, and bulldozers.

Unfortunately, this fire injured five people and mercilessly claimed the lives of six individuals — five prisoners and one State employee, who had volunteered for firefighting duty.

During the 7 days it burned, the Dude fire destroyed over 75 structures, including a cabin built in the 1920’s by Zane Grey, a popular Western novelist, whose writing was inspired by the picturesque scenery. The destructive fire also forced over 1,200 people to leave their homes and obtain shelter elsewhere.

Because of this catastrophic event, Gov. Rose Mofford declared Gila County a disaster area and approved an allocation of $40,000 for relief. In addition, Senator John McCain and I asked President Bush for a similar Federal disaster designation.

I want to recognize the professional firefighters who, while anonymous to most of us, risk their lives every day to protect us.

The Dude fire once again demonstrated why each and every one of us owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.

Mr. President, it seems that in times of emergency, people really pull together and help one another. I am proud of the efforts of the citizens of Arizona during this time of need, particularly those of Payson.”

The statement recognized several individuals for their contributions to setting up evacuation centers including Payson Town Clerk Ray Frost, Payson Superintendent of Schools William Lawson, school employees Russ Kinzer and Beth Leeds, Payson Police Chief David Wilson, Payson Walmart manager Oli Zarnegin, and Payson Town Manager Jack Monschein, who coordinated and supervised the entire project.

“Mr. President, these are just a few examples of the courage and generosity of the citizens of Payson, Ariz. I am sure I could spend most of the day on the Senate floor sharing other instances that demonstrate the true spirit of voluntarism that exists in this community. I think, however, you get the picture of the kind people that live there. I ask that my colleagues join me in paying tribute to the citizens of Payson, Ariz. They certainly deserve it.”

Those who were here at the time can take great pride in the accomplishments described on the Senate floor. Newcomers may be informed and take pride in their community. Everyone can continue to engender the spirit of voluntarism and the same caring and sharing as demonstrated during that time for those here today and those yet to come to our community.

The “Tribute to Payson” graphically describes the very essence of the quality of life that we seek and wish to achieve for all our citizens. This is, indeed, a “never ending story.” The threat of devastating fire continues to exist in the high country region and everyone, both living in the region and visitors alike, must be aware of and respect that threat.

Bill Sahno, Colonel, U. S. Marine Corps (Ret)


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