by Chuck Jacobs, retired Payson fire chief
Yesterday came and went quietly ... maybe too quietly. Yesterday was the 24th anniversary of the day the Dude Fire blew up and killed six firefighters in Walk Moore Canyon, just north of Control Road and west of the Bonita Creek subdivision.
It wasn’t really a big fire at that point, but a combination of circumstances all came together that caused it to suddenly turn into a raging monster, forcing firefighters to run for their lives. Six couldn’t run fast enough, but it just as easily could have been 60. It was that close.
Down at the Payson fire station on Main Street, the on-duty crew was going about their daily routine, while also keeping an ear on the Forest Service radio channel for information on the fire. The fire had grown rapidly since it had started from a lightning strike the day before. Payson Fire had not been asked to send any units at that point, and it seemed far enough away that there was no immediate danger to Payson itself. I was working in my office, when the radio traffic on the scanner began talking about a change in the fire’s intensity. Voices began to sound tense, and there was talk about moving to safety zones. It didn’t sound as bad as it was getting. Firefighters place great value in never allowing themselves to sound excited or panicky over the radio, and this was no exception, at least on the radio channel that I was monitoring. I don’t remember exactly what I was working on, but I heard a voice behind me on the scanner say “We have fatalities.” From that moment on, we were all glued to the radio. We didn’t know what had happened or who it was, but we knew that something had gone terribly wrong. The fatality count soon was up to six, with others burned. Yeah, things had gone wrong alright.
The Forest Service folks were going through a change of command to an Incident Command Team when the blowup occurred, there were no public information officers in place to handle the media onslaught that was about to happen, and we had not had anybody from the Forest Service tell us anything since the fire had started.
Fortunately, a firefighter from an outside agency came in, asking to use our telephone to call his bosses to tell them what had happened (remember, this was years before cell phones). He had been right there and narrowly escaped himself, and he gave us a quick rundown on what had happened, and that it was six members of the Perryville prison crew who had been killed. Now we knew, but we also knew that we were told unofficially, and in confidence.
I don’t know how the word got out so fast, but as soon as the media heard about six firefighters being killed in a forest fire near Payson, Arizona, they did what to them was the logical thing ... they called the Payson Fire Department. We had three incoming non-emergency phone lines, and they were all jammed all afternoon, with calls from everywhere imaginable. I, myself, took a call from the BBC in London. We politely told all of the calling media outlets that it was a U.S. Forest Service incident, that any information would have to come from them, and that we had not been given any phone numbers to contact. I also took a call from a crying, screaming, hysterical wife, whose husband was a firefighter from a Valley-area municipal fire department who was on an engine crew somewhere on the fire. It took me a bit to get her calmed down enough to even talk to her, but I was finally able to get her to understand that I could not tell her who it was, but I could tell her that it was not her husband’s engine crew.
I also got a call from friend and Tempe Fire Chief Cliff Jones, who asked me “Chuck, what the hell is going on up there?” I gave him a quick summary, and told him that the fire was exhibiting extreme behavior, but I didn’t think that it would get all the way to Payson. But if it did, I was going to need some help. He asked me what I would want, and I told him 30 engine companies. He told me, “If it comes to that, let me know and I’ll make it happen.” Thirty engines from the Phoenix metro area, just like that. Fortunately, we never needed them, but it was comforting to know that option was there.
The phone calls went on all afternoon, and well into the night. Finally, as the Incident Command Team got their PIO folks in place and the media figured out who to call, things at our place quieted down.
This is only a little, tiny piece of everything that happened that day, but it was an afternoon that none of us who were there will ever forget.