Staff Ride to the Dude Fire
At approximately 1230 on June 25, 1990, a dry lightning storm triggered a fire beneath the Mogollon Rim about 10 miles northeast of Payson, Arizona. This area is located on the Payson Ranger District of the Tonto National Forest. Conditions were such (high temperatures, low relative humidity, large accumulation of fuels, and several years of below normal precipitation) that the fire burned quickly, and within a matter of hours the Dude Fire had become a raging inferno. Before the fire was declared controlled 10 days later, over 24,000 acres had burned in two national forests, 63 homes were destroyed, and six firefighters were killed.
This initial rapid fire spread entrapped eleven firefighters, six of which perished. Dry fuels, complex topography, and strong winds directly contributed to the entrapment and these fatalities. The fire continued to actively spread for another three days. Of the structures that were destroyed in this fire, the historic Zane Grey Cabin and Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery were included. A total of $12 million in losses was incurred on the Dude Fire, which cost approximately $7.5 million to suppress. Total forces/resources used to suppress the Dude Fire included 14 helicopters, 14 water tenders, 10 air tankers, 12 dozers, 61 fire crews for a total of 2,632 people. In addition, the fire forced the temporary evacuation of more than 1,100 residents.
This tragic event inspired Paul Gleason to propose the LCES (Lookouts, Communication, Escape Routes, Safety Zones) system is now a minimum safety standard for wildland firefighting. Other lessons learned from this incident that continue to influence fire suppression around the world today include knowledge about plume-dominated fire behavior, improved protocols for incident command transfer, and implementation of refresher training for fire shelter use.
The Dude Fire Staff Ride is a product of the NWCG Leadership Committee. Project team members were:
- Jennifer Adams - U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - Southwest Regional Office
- Julian Affuso - U.S. Forest Service - Lincoln National Forest
- Jim Cook - U.S. Forest Service - National Interagency Fire Center
- Travis Dotson - U.S. Forest Service - Southwest Regional Office
- Mark Kaib - U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - Southwest Regional Office
- Bequi Livingston - U.S. Forest Service - Southwest Regional Office
- Dave Mertz - U.S. Forest Service - Kaibab National Forest
- Kerri Mich - U.S. Forest Service - Southwest Regional Office
- Jim Scola - U.S. Forest Service - Gila National Forest
- Nina Walker - Bureau of Land Management - National Wildfire Coordinating Group
- Chris Wilcox - U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - New Mexico Fire Zone
Special thanks to the following individuals for their valuable insights and support regarding the finalization of the Dude Fire Staff Ride:
- Lt Col Eric Carlson – U.S. Marine Corps (retired)
- Steve Dickenson – U.S. Forest Service – Pacific Northwest Coordination Center
- Dan Kleinman – U.S. Forest Service – Washington Office
- Andy Parker – Bureau of Land Management (retired)
- Fred Schoeffler – Pine-Strawberry Fire District
- Randy Skelton – U.S. Forest Service – Black Hills National Forest
- Dave Thomas – U.S. Forest Service (retired)
- Hank Walters – U.S. Forest Service (retired)
- Participants from the 2007 Southwest Area Staff Ride Workshop
Dude Fire Case Study; 16:11 minutes.
Dude Fire: Learning from Incidents: Operations; 30:28 minutes.
Google Earth fly-around animation of the Dude Fire area.
Second Google Earth fly-around animation of the Dude Fire area.
Documents and Publications:
*These documents are historical and are not currently accessible; please contact NWCG if you need assistance having the documents read.
- *Dude Fire Accident Investigation Report
- Dude Fire Information Summary
- Weather and Fire Behavior Factors Related to the Dude Fire
- *Dude Fire Chronology prepared by U.S. District Attorney
- Fire Shelter Refresher Training Memo
- Key to Blowup Conditions in the Southwest (Fire Control Notes 1962)
- *Looking at "Dude" Deaths (Arizona Republic 1991)
- LCES and Other Thoughts by Paul Gleason (1991)
- Dude Fire Still Smoking by Mike Johns (1996)
- Tonto Fire History by Mark Kaib (2001)
- Dude Fire Staff Ride (Fire Management Today 2002)
- *The Dude Fire Story by Mike Johns (2009)
- *Dude Fire Incident Action Plan for June 26, 1990
- *Dude Fire Incident Action Plan cover for June 28, 1990
Local Contact Information
Payson Ranger District
1009 East Highway 260
Payson, Arizona 85541
Phone (928) 474-7900
On June 25, 1990, a lightning strike sparked a fire beneath the Mogollon Rim about 10 miles northeast of Payson. Conditions were such that the fire burned quickly and within a matter of hours the Dude Fire had become extremely active. The fire was reported at 1315. Initial attack resources arrived at 1400 to find a very active10-acre fire. An hour later over 360 firefighters including engines, dozers, handcrews, aviation resources, and a Type II Incident Management Team had been ordered. The Type II IMT was on site and assumed command of the fire by 1800.
Around 1930 the 20 person Perryville inmate crew arrived at the Payson Ranger District. The crew was instructed to eat and report to base camp. Following dinner, they were redirected to the Bonita Creek Estates Subdivision. At 0100 the Perryville crew arrived at the Subdivision and they were quickly moved to the junction of Walk Moore Canyon and the Control Road, they arrived there at 0230. By this time a Type I IMT had been ordered and was to shadow the Type II team beginning at 0600 and then transfer command at 1300.
The Mogollon Rim rises 1,000 feet above the ponderosa pines north and east of Payson. It often created its own weather. From mid-July through September, large thunderheads gather almost daily along the Rim's edge. The vegetation in the fire area was drastically different from what we see today. The vegetation consisted primarily of dense Ponderosa Pine with decadent Manzanita underbrush covered in needle-drape. Due to heavy ponderosa over story, visibility was extremely limited for resources working in Walk Moore Canyon as opposed to the unrestricted visibility of today. It is important to note the change in vegetation composition as it relates to how we now implement LCES.
This location provides an overall view of the area including the Mogollon Rim, Walk Moore Canyon, and the Bonita Creek Estates Subdivision.
Parking for Stand 1 is in this undeveloped gravel borrow pit. From the parking area walk up and over the Control Road to the east for Stand 1 location.
From Stand 1 participants can view the point of origin, Walk Moore Canyon, and Bonita Creek Estates.
At 0230 the Perryville crew met with Division Supervisor Dale Ashby at the Control Road and Walk Moore Canyon Junction. The crew's assignment was to anchor at the Control Road and construct line up the jeep trail. The crew completed the line on the jeep trail and continued up the power line right-of-way into the Bonita Creek Estates Subdivision.
By 0300 the main fire was within one-quarter mile of the Subdivision structures. The brisk down canyon winds continued to push the fire to approximately 500 acres by 0500. By 0600 the fire was estimated to be 1900 acres.
The Perryville crew and Prescott IHC (Interagency Hotshot Crew) worked in the Subdivision until approximately 0930. By this time the jeep trail in Walk Moore Canyon had been bladed by a dozer, the crew was instructed to improve this line.
From the junction of the power line and Walk Moore Canyon, one can look up the power line through the brush and see the direction the crew began working. At the time of the fire, the hillside consisted of thick Pine trees with a brush and needle-cast understory. Saw work in the dense dog-hair-thicket was slow and finding a place swamp the cut material was tough because of the density of vegetation. The crew's original assignment was to proceed up the jeep trail in the bottom of the canyon, it changed to building line up the power line and around the south and east of the Subdivision.
This is the developed interpretive site/parking area. It is utilized to access Stands 2-4 and has a capacity for approximately 10 vehicles.
Looking up the handline that was constructed by the Perryville crew in the powerline right-of-way immediately after the fire.
The powerline looking in the direction the Perryville crew built line.
Saw team working in the area of Bonita Creek Estates during the Dude Fire – note the vegetation conditions.
As the intensive prep work near the corner house was completed a firing operation began. By 1300 Perryville had continued to improve line and made it approximately one-third of the way down Walk Moore Canyon where they ran out of drinking water. The crew boss and one crewmember walked to the Control Road and sent water back to the crew via ATV.
Around 1300 the firing operation was stopped due to holding difficulties. Around 1330 it was discovered travel south through the Bonita Creek Estates Subdivision was blocked by fire. At this point, two dozers were instructed to build an impromptu safety zone within the recently attempted firing operation. At 1345 a spot fire was reported below the Control Road on the west side.
Shortly after 1400 Perryville had resupplied with water and returned to work as the Hotshot crews above them began to move into the impromptu safety zone. The fire began to crown and Perryville began to move down the canyon towards the Control Road.
The corner house became a landmark and reference point during the fire. This location served as a meeting point for the numerous resources on this portion of the fire. It was a tactical focal point being at the head of Walk Moore Canyon and the portion of Bonita Creek Estates Subdivision closest to the fire.
Looking north at the corner house.
Looking southwest at the corner house and down Walk Moore Canyon.
Fire approaching corner house on June 26, 1990.
Looking northwest up Walkmoore Canyon from a small mesa above the corner house. This photo was taken about 45 minutes before the blowup on June 26, 1990.
Deployment site with fatality markers and shelter deployment markers in place.
As the Perryville crew noticed the fire moving above them, they also saw that the Navajo Scouts crew was running past them and yelling to "get out". Everyone began to run towards the Control Road. The Perryville crew became separated into an upper and lower group, the lower group being closer to the Control Road. Several crewmembers had trouble with equipment such as chaps falling down and difficulty removing fusees. The upper portion of the crew was cut off when the fire crossed the dozer line below them. Those cut off were forced to move back up the canyon. The cut off crewmembers struggled to deploy their fire shelters.
At this location, 11 Perryville crewmembers were entrapped resulting in six fatalities. At the time of the fire, this canyon was full of closely spaced Ponderosa Pine trees limiting the view of the surrounding area. The existing jeep trail in the canyon bottom had just been bladed by a dozer for use as a control line.
Walk Moore Canyon immediately following the fire showing the height and density of the trees at the time of the fire.
Looking up Walk Moore Canyon at the deployment site immediately following the fire.
From his initial deployment site, James Ellis walked down the canyon, then back up the canyon where he met survivors. He was then escorted back down the canyon to this location where he stated "I'm dead," laid down with his head on a log, and expired.
This location provides a powerful and convenient site for field integration sessions.
Potential field integration site near Ellis' cross. The cross was positioned out of the canyon bottom and away from the actual fatality location to avoid erosion damage.
Actual location where Ellis declared: 'I'm dead'.
This memorial was organized and erected by the residents of the Bonita Creek Estates Subdivision in honor and recognition of the ultimate sacrifice made by the members of the Perryville crew.
The Perryville crew memorial erected by the residents of Bonita Creek Estates.
An expanded view of the memorial site and surrounding area. Parking opportunities are limited.