National Wildfire Coordinating Group

2023 Week of Remembrance Day 4

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Dude Fire (Arizona) – June 26, 1990

Today’s topic is dedicated to all wildland firefighters.
May we never stop learning.

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 12:30 p.m. 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 1:30 p.m., at 50 acres one hour later, and at over 100 acres by 4:15 p.m., with a spot fire one mile east of the main fire. By 6:00 p.m., 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 5:00 a.m. on June 26, threatening the forest subdivision of Bonita Creek Estates. A convection column, aided by combustion, began forming over the fire by 10:00 a.m. The column continued to grow and became a fully mature thunderstorm by 2:00 p.m. 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:

  • What was learned from the Dude Fire? Are those lessons still being shared to grow our safety awareness? Are you mentoring others who can learn from your experiences?
  • Do we have practices/policies in place now that are designed to prevent this type of tragedy? Risk Assessments, Incident Strategic Alignment Process, Strategic Risk Assessment, training, policy?
  • Do we have the same hazards in the fire environment, or have they changed? Discuss issues like recent radio recall or, dependence on technology.


Week of Remembrance
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Jul 2023

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