A fresh look at the tragic Dude Fire

Dude Fire Newpaper

The front page of The Arizona Republic, June 27, 1990. (click to enlarge)

A journalist, who is also an editor at Time, Inc., has taken a fresh look at the Dude Fire, 23 years after 6 firefighters were entrapped and killed in Walk Moore Canyon north of Payson, Arizona, June 23, 1990 — a day when the temperature in Phoenix reached 122 degrees, grounding jetliners because there was no reliable data confirming that fully loaded commercial aircraft could operate in that kind of heat.

Jaime Joyce conducted extensive research about the fire, talking to firefighters who survived, families that had to bury their sons, investigators who determined what happened and how the equipment functioned, and yes, attorneys who dealt with legal issues long after the funerals. She unearthed facts, stories, and perspectives that never made it into the official reports.

Firefighters can learn many lessons from reading the investigation report which was completed less than a month after the accident by Dick Mangan, Ted Putnum, Patricia Andrews, and six others.

Reading articles like the one written by Ms. Joyce can also impress upon a firefighter, especially those in the early part of their careers, that things CAN go wrong, horribly wrong, and how important it is to be responsible for your own safety (if you SEE something, SAY something) and to maintain situational awareness.

Ms. Joyce’s account, published at The Big Roundtable, brings to light details that would not normally be found in government reports — it shines a light on the accident from a different perspective. It also covers the battles fought by survivors and the victims’ families for various forms of restitution, largely futile, that persisted for years after the smoke cleared.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

****

“…The burnover lasted about 15 minutes. [Fire] shelters are designed to withstand temperatures up to 1,200 degrees. It must have been hotter in the heart of the flame front, since some of the shelters started to delaminate, the aluminum exterior separating from the fiberglass lining.

Davenport, Love, and LaTour stayed put. They waited inside their shelters until the area cooled down. LaTour used his radio to call for help but no one answered on any of the channels. Through the chatter, he heard someone say that help was coming. When the men finally emerged about 45 minutes later, shaky and weak, they followed the dozer line toward Control Road, their tattered shelters wrapped around their bodies like capes. As they walked, LaTour told the men not to look at the devastation that surrounded them. “We have to get out,” he said.

On the way down, they met Hoke, who was still inside his shelter. He emerged from his cocoon and joined the survivors. Ellis appeared next. As he walked toward the men, with his shelter tied around his forehead, his skin and clothing burned, the life drained out of him. “I’m dead,” Ellis told the others, and then he sat down on a log and died.

No one was waiting for the men at Control Road. Again, LaTour radioed for help and got no response. He headed west with his men about 200 yards, which is where a Forest Service truck met them. The men climbed into the bed of the pickup and were taken to a clearing, where they were given first aid. They were brought to the base camp next and flown by helicopter to Maricopa Medical Center, in Phoenix.

Before the flame front hit, the Alpine Hotshots foreman, Jim “J.P.” Mattingly, and his men had been conducting a burnout in Walk Moore Canyon just north of Perryville, using gasoline-filled drip torches to light small fires in order to clear vegetation and stop the spread of the blaze. When Mattingly saw the fire approaching, he had ordered his men to run north up the canyon, in the opposite direction of Perryville and Navajo. He had stepped away from the safety zone to take in his surroundings when he came across Paul Gleason, superintendent of the Zigzag Hotshots, and Paul Linse, superintendent of Flathead. Mattingly told the men that Perryville and Navajo had gone back toward Control Road, and that nobody else should be heading north up the canyon. But Gleason wanted to make sure no one was left. “Do you mind if we go back that way?” he asked. No one objected.

Their actions defied human instinct…”

(end of excerpt)

****

We contacted Ms. Joyce to ask her how she became interested in the Dude Fire. In addition to granting us permission to publish an excerpt, she was kind enough to provide the following answers to our inquiry:

****

“I began working on BURN in 2009. It was inspired by my brother. He’d recently begun serving a prison sentence in Arizona for a non-violent crime, and he’d earned a place on an inmate fire crew. It was an incredible opportunity for him and for the men he worked with, and it seemed to me that the job had such potential for good. I wanted to explore this.

What I didn’t know when I started the project was that I’d be writing about the Dude Fire. I’d never even heard of it. I was born and raised in Arizona, but left the state for college a year before it happened. While doing preliminary online research into wildland firefighting and inmate fire crews, I stumbled across the Dude Fire Accident Investigation Report. It’s an unbelievable piece of primary source material, and I knew as I read it that I had to tell the story of the inmates—and their supervisor— who were lost in this fire. I was also moved by the stories of the other firefighters out there on that fateful day, by the careful and sensitive work of the investigators who went in afterward, and by legal struggle that ensued.

Several key sources spoke to me at length about the Dude Fire. Former wildland firefighter Gene Garate was the first. He was a young man, barely out of his teens, when he was on a hotshot crew working the Dude Fire, and he read to me from the journal he kept at the time. It was terrifying, and so personal. I’m grateful for his assistance. Former inmate Steven Pender provided a survivor’s perspective. Ron and Carol Springfield, the parents of deceased firefighter Curtis Springfield, also very generously and graciously told me about their son and what it was like to lose him. On the legal side, attorney Bill Stephens and Assistant U.S. Attorney, Arizona District, Mike Johns, himself a former wildland firefighter, gave me many hours of their time and assistance over the years.

How long did I work on the piece? The first iteration was done over a very intense summer in 2009. It was my master’s project while going to journalism school part time at Columbia. Professor Sam Freedman was my adviser on the project. I could not have asked for a better editor. But because the story didn’t have a “news peg,” so to speak, there wasn’t a traditional outlet for it. But I always wanted to share the story, because I felt that it was an important story to tell. Last year, Sam Freedman referred the story to Michael Shapiro, who was creating a website for longform narrative journalism called The Big Roundtable. I worked with editors and writers there to tighten the story even more. The site launched last week, which happened to be the 23rd anniversary of the Dude Fire.

I’m so pleased to be able to share the story and am honored to have received such positive feedback from the wildland firefighting community. Thank you for the job that you do. I also hope that the story helps to further the conversation about the role of prison rehabilitation and reentry programs.”

(end of Ms. Joyce’s response)

****

If you appreciate the effort that Ms. Joyce put into collecting, writing, and publishing this information, you should consider a making a donation using the form at the bottom of the article.

Share
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , by Bill Gabbert. Bookmark the permalink.

About Bill Gabbert

Wildland fire has been a major part of Bill Gabbert’s life for several decades. After growing up in the south, he migrated to southern California where he lived for 20 years, working as a wildland firefighter. Later he took his affinity for firefighting to Indiana and eventually the Black Hills of South Dakota where he was the Fire Management Officer for a group of seven national parks. Today he is the creator and owner of WildfireToday.com and Sagacity Wildfire Services and serves as an expert witness in wildland fire. If you are interested in wildland fire, welcome… grab a cup of coffee and put your feet up. Google+

3 thoughts on “A fresh look at the tragic Dude Fire

  1. As a young first year “Station Manager” (now called FOS, ADFMO, or Battalion Chief), I rolled into the Dude Fire as a TFLD with an engine in tow. We had driven all night and were supposed to be the “fresh” crews for the day shift. As we rolled into the Dude Fire, things were going gunnysack.

    The memories I remember the most are the chaos in camp as people were grieving what happened just hours before as we tried to check in, but were completely focused on continuing the professionalism and mission of firefighter and community safety.

    When things go bad, the wildland firefighting community knows how to retreat, regroup, refocus, and advance.

  2. That was a sad day. My brother was “Hoke” and he has never been the same since. I hope that the families of this new tragedy can find the comfort and help they need to cope with it.

  3. I was on the fire that day with Zig Zag hotshots working next to the Perryville crew. I handed a torch to them maybe 15 minutes before the thing blew up. Hot gas rushed over us. My lungs fried and I dropped to the ground to try sucking cooler air out of the dirt while Perryville burned. I had been discusted by the sticky red retardant that coated me from a tanker drop earlier. They had hit us directly and the goo ran down my back. That’s the only difference between my position and Perryville crew stringing down the valley from us. Many images remain burned in today. I remember the faces of Perryville as we met that morning on the trail. I remember the fellow that walked out of the fire in our direction. I forget if he lived or not. A few hours preceding the blow out I was convinced it was coming. I monitored weather. Noted the winds, the rain falling when humidity had been at 2%,all day. I said to those close to me “it’s not good. Its going to blow. Were mid slope and not near the black. There must have been a hundred bad signs and clear failures to act according to rules and training. A few minutes later it came through the trees like a blast of toxic gas followed by exploding trees. We walked up slope and found the living. Then back down to watch a man walk out of the fire leaving the dead behind him. The whole week became madness as we went back in and faught the thing on the cliffs of the rim. I remember the town cobbler fixing my melted boors for free. It was an honor to be there with all those firefightes from.so many places and backgrounds. Its a thing that rarely fades. The sound. The speed that a spark would flash into a large spot fire. Instantly. Im all to often outraged as I read the yearly stories of more wildland firefighters burned to death in conditions they never should have been sent. The rules of engagement on the fire line are clear.and reasonable. Its shocking how frequently they are ignored. I wouldn’t trade that day for anything. But I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Burning to death is an ugly thing so fitting to but contradicting the colors and.beauty of a large fire. Craziest thing I’ll ever see. I miss those guys.

Comments are closed.