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: