Christopher Creek had a brief shower last Friday evening. Distant lightning came from the back of Christopher Mountain, some four or five miles away. The radar signature indicated a strong cell dropped heavy rain. The outflow from that downpour blew through and the temperature quickly dropped.
Many on the Landmark patio relished the refreshing rain. A few realized the foreboding that came with it. The teasers had arrived and they were here too early — it was still May. These early lightning storms are precursors to the monsoon. They come after the dry months of April and May and have the potential of causing “starts” — the term used for small lightning fires. Generally, these teasers come in around mid-June with the monsoon rains coming behind to douse them. You will be relieved to know Denny Harger is manning the Colcord LO tower atop Colcord Mountain and keeping an eye on these starts.
It was on a Monday morning and we headed to the IGA in Payson for groceries. My 11-year-old nephew, Kevin, was spending a week and we had to feed him. Midday saw the temperature read 100 degrees on the sign above the bank near the 260/87 stoplight. After a quick lunch, we headed back to the relative cool of the Creek. Long before the completion of the four-lane, Highway 260 was like driving through a tunnel of forest most of the way. Brief views of the terrain off to the west gave us the first glimpses of a tall, pencil of smoke. At the top of that skinny plume was what seemed to be a sprig of broccoli. Having little chance to pinpoint its location, it was assumed that there was a fire at the dump at Buckhead Mesa. Not much more thought was given. There was not even a breath of air that day of the 25th of June 1990. The sky was clear.
It wasn’t until later that evening we heard that a single bolt from the blue had sparked a fire high up near the base of the Rim. The news came by word of mouth and there was little concern at the time.
By noon the next day, we heard that a guy from the Creek, by the name of Bert, had headed to Bonita Creek early that morning to evacuate livestock. The fire was quickly spreading eastward and it had a name — the Dude.
There were no cellphones, no internet. News came from folks over in Tonto Village and from Mead Ranch, where they could see the fire’s rapid advance. There were updates on KMOG during the afternoon of the second day, but by evening radio reception was iffy. During my night shift at the old Landmark, news of the fire was the talk of the town, but there was yet little worry. That changed the next morning.
We awoke with the smell of smoke in the air. You could hear the slurry bombers high overhead. Around noon a GCSO deputy stopped to drop off a map of the fire perimeter. It was a single sheet of paper with a dark line drawn around the fire’s progress. It didn’t look good. There was a 6 a.m. timeline on the map and inside the perimeter was the Bonita Creek subdivision and Pyle Ranch. That afternoon we set up an information center on top of the pool table with the small map and a larger Tonto NF map.
By evening there was word that the fire was making its own weather and a backfire at Walk Moore Creek had blown up on them the day prior and some firefighters perished.
The smoke smell was heavy and there was ash in the air in the Creek. At dusk my nephew was tasked with manning the radio on the back porch and reporting any news. Folks were gathering at the Landmark amid growing concern.
Then from over at Tonto Village, we heard of a standby order for evacuation. Later we learned that Tonto Estates and Kohl’s Ranch had received a pre-evacuation order.
Sunset was an eerie orange from the smoke. By dark on that third day of the Dude, there was a glow on the horizon to the west.
We received a phone call from my brother in the Valley to see if we were all right. Valley news stations were covering the fire. We advised him the fire was still 10 miles away and we were fine. Young Kevin must have been concerned as he was asking of some of the locals if this was the biggest forest fire they had ever seen.
At 10 p.m. on the third night, we called over to the Double D in Tonto Village. We don’t know who it was that picked up the phone. They answered with, “Can’t talk now. We are evacuating!” That is where we will pick up the story ... and that’s another week in the Creek.