Dude Fire — 25 years ago today

Dude fire, Arizona Republic newspaperThe June 27, 1990 Arizona Republic, from Michael Johns’ paper, “The Dude Fire” (click for a slightly larger version)

Twenty-five years ago today, six firefighters perished on the Dude fire in Walk Moore Canyon north of Payson, Arizona on 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.

Tom Story, 25 years ago, was a photographer for the Arizona Republic and was on the Dude Fire taking pictures. Some of them have been recently posted on their website. One of them shows Superintendent Paul Gleason and some of his Zig Zag hotshots during the
burnout operation in Bonita Creek Estates, prior to the blow up. Mr. Story is still active in the fire world.

More information:

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:
Continue reading “A fresh look at the tragic Dude Fire”

Wildfire briefing, March 26, 2013

Update on air tanker contracting

Fire Aviation has an article published today summarizing the current state of air tanker contracting, or the lack thereof. There may be some new developments this week.

Wood shingles on Helena’s fire tower violate city ordinance

The wood shake shingles that the city installed on the roof of Helena’s iconic fire tower in 2011 violate the city’s ordinance against the use of exposed wooden roofing materials. The city Manager said they will fix it “ASAP”.

Wood roofs on National Park Service structures

The National Park Service should also be called to task for routinely using wood shake shingles when they replace roofs on historic buildings in fire prone environments — for example a visitor center in Devils Tower National Monument and an old ranger station in Jewel Cave National Monument. The NPS should fix it “ASAP”.

During the Jasper Fire in 2000 firefighters had a hellofatime keeping the old structure in Jewel Cave from burning. Three times they had to foam the structure and escape as the fire approached and burned around the log building with the wood roof. Just weeks before the fire the wood shingle roof had been replaced with — wood shingles. There are alternative roof materials that look very much like wood but are much more fire resistant.

The 2013 wildfire season

This time of the year some people like to make predictions about how busy the wildfire season will be. USA Today jumps into the fray, and has an interesting graphic. WyoFile also covered the topic.

Dude Fire video

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has converted a video about the Dude Fire Staff Ride that was first released on VHS tape in October, 2000. It tells the story of how a fatal blow-up entrapped 11 firefighters and claimed six of their lives.

Wildfire training in Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Bureau of Forest Fire Control hosted fire training for 64 firefighters last week on Cape Cod.

Cattle growers endorse bill to increase grazing on federal lands

Two cattle grower organizations are supporting a bill that was recently reintroduced in the House of Representatives. Titled the Catastrophic Wildfire Prevention Act of 2013 (H.R. 1345), it would streamline the process for approving livestock grazing and timber thinning.

Massive forest thinning project in Arizona

The goal of the Four Forests Restoration Initiative is to thin 1 million acres of ponderosa pine forests over 20 years, from the Grand Canyon to the New Mexico border. The project covers the Kaibab, Coconino, Apache, Sitgreaves, and Tonto national forests.