National Wildfire Coordinating Group

Dude Fire (Arizona) – June 26, 1990


This Day in History is a brief summary of a powerful learning opportunity and is not intended to second guess or be judgmental of decisions and actions. Put yourself in the following situation as if you do not know the outcome. What are the conditions? What are you thinking? What are YOU doing?

Incident Summary:

June of 1990 will long be remembered as one of the hottest months in Arizona history. On June 26, record temperatures were reported at 122 ºF in Phoenix and 106 ºF in Payson. In addition to the extreme temperatures, Arizona had been in a severe three-year drought. This combination produced a critically high fire danger throughout the state, especially in the Mogollon Rim country on the Payson Ranger District of the Tonto National Forest (TNF) north of Payson. Fuels in the area are primarily ponderosa pine with an understory of mixed oak, manzanita, needle and leaf litter, and scattered large (greater than 6 inch diameter) dead logs. Much of the understory brush was heavily draped with very dry pine needles. Live fuel moisture in the manzanita and oak was very low (76%). Fine dead fuel moisture was 3% and 8% for larger dead fuels.

At 1230 on June 25, a dry lightning storm started a fire under the Mogollon Rim . The fire was on a steep, southwest-facing slope at 6,400 feet elevation. The fire was estimated from the air at 5 acres at 1330, at 50 acres one hour later, and at over 100 acres by 1615, with a spot fire one mile east of the main fire. By 1800, a Type 2 Incident Management Team (IMT) had arrived and a Type 1 IMT and 18 crews had been ordered. Brisk down canyon winds pushed the fire, and it was 1,900 acres by 0500 on June 26, threatening the forest subdivision of Bonita Creek Estates. A convection column, aided by combustion, began forming over the fire by 1000. The column continued to grow and became a fully mature thunderstorm by 1400. Radio and frequency issues caused a breakdown in communication between the crews and the IMT. The team transition mid-shift resulted in confusion between the crews and supervision. The thunderstorm also began to decay, creating strong downbursts channeled by the topography. This caused dramatic down- and cross-slope fire spread on nearly all sides of the fire. Members of the Perryville Fire Crew would not be able to escape from the fast and erratic fire spread. Five were injured. Six died on the fireline.

Discussion Points:

The fire behavior indicator system Look Up, Look Down, Look Around was developed in response to this tragic fire.

  • Use Look Up, Down and Around in the Operational Engagement section (green) in the Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG), PMS 461. What indicators are most significant in your area to let you know the fire behavior may become problematic?

Also, the Haines Index, a measure of the atmosphere’s effect on a fire’s growth potential, was adopted for inclusion on fire weather forecasts issued by the National Weather Service.

  • Review and discuss Haines Index (Other References section, white) in the IRPG

Monument memorial wooden sign describing the Dude Fire incident.

In his paper “LCES and Other Thoughts,” Paul Gleason writes about kneeling next to one of the Perryville firefighters and of his promise to help end needless fatalities and near misses.

  • Review LCES (Operational Engagement section, green) in the IRPG  and discuss how you and your crew will establish and maintain LCES.
  • Discuss the difference between establishing LCES and maintaining LCES.
  • What are common barriers to maintaining LCES?

We honor these firefighters today by learning about the lessons they learned the hard way and by using this tragic event as a tool to keep ourselves and our crews safe on the fireline.


This Day in History
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Aug 2023

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