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Incident Name: Dude Fire on the Tonto National Forest
Date: 6/26/90
Personnel:  6 lives lost
Age: Varies
Agency/Organization: Perryville Center Crew, Arizona State Land, working for the US Forest Service
Position: 1 supervisor and 5 wildland firefighters

Summary:

6 Fatalities on the Perryville Crew:
Sandra J. Bachman, 43
Joseph L. Chacon, 25
Alex S. Contreras, 33
James L Denney, 39
James E. Ellis, 34
Curtis E. Springfield, 24

Severely Burned:
Geoffrey Hatch, 27

Injured:
William H. Davenport, 23
Gregory Hoke, 29
Donald R. Love, 30

On the afternoon of June 26, 1990 the Perryville Inmate Crew was working to secure a dozer line on the Dude Fire on the Tonto National Forest near the Bonita Creek Subdivision. High temperatures, low humidity, dry fuels and strong down bursts from local thunderstorms caused extreme fire behavior and escape routes were compromised. The Perryville Crew was overrun and 11 crew members deployed shelters. Zig Zag Hotshot Superintendent Paul Gleason had come back up the canyon after evacuating the area the warn the crew, found several members burned and called for medical assistance. The events of that day led him to develop LCES, which is now a core principal in Firefighter safety and tactics. It was also after this fire that Dick Rothermel coined the term Plume Dominated Fire Behavior. The lessons learned from this fire have had a profound impact on the study of wildland fires and firefighter safety.

The Fallen:

Sandra Bachman Sandra Bachman
Joseph Chacon Joseph Chacon
Alex Contreras Alex Contreras
James Denney James Denney
James Ellis James Ellis
Curtis Springfield Curtis Springfield
 
Dude Fire Sign Dude Fire Sign

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Burnover Location

 

Dude Fire Map Sign Dude Fire Map Sign
Newspaper Map of Dude Fire Newspaper Map of Dude Fire

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Reports, Documentation, Lessons Learned

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From Archives of They Said It:

Discussion starting on 6/28/06:
The Dude Fire is Still Smokin’

The latest chapter in the Dude Fire story has been written by Dr. Brian E. Potter, Research Meteorologist & Team Leader, USDA Forest Service AirFIRE Team. Dr. Potter published an article in 2005 explaining how the water produced in a wildland fire enters the plume and affects the likelihood of causing a downburst. The Dude Fire was among the most dramatic examples of this phenomenon in his article. “The role of released moisture in the atmospheric dynamics associated with wildland fires”. Potter, Brian E., International Journal of Wildland Fire, 2005, 14, 77-84.

The Dude Fire downburst article by Goens and Andrews is referenced in Dr. Potter’s work. Dr. Potter calculated the DCAPE - Downdraft Convective Available Potential Energy - and the Dude Fire DCAPE values were among the highest of the eleven severe fires examined. Dr. Potter states: “Released moisture is not only a contributing factor, but at times a controlling or critical factor in fire-atmosphere interactions on time and space scales important to fire behavior and fire-fighter safety.”

One can infer that but for the fire-released water from the Dude Fire into the plume that day, on the order of 5 million kilograms by my estimate, the air would probably not have had sufficient water content to initiate and sustain the downburst.

Dr. Potter explains the need to add this to our predictive models:“The traditional definition of fire behavior describes the controlling factors as fuels, atmosphere and topography. If released moisture is indeed an important factor controlling fire behavior, then it presents an area of fire behavior research that requires strong knowledge and understanding of both fuel conditions and the atmospheric conditions. The link between these two becomes a strong two-way interaction that cannot be studied or understood in separate fuel and atmospheric pieces.”Dr. Potter concludes with what needs to be done to put this knowledge to work on the fire ground:“There are also implications of this work for management, though practical application is far down the road. If a manager knew that a certain rate of moisture release was a threshold for extreme fire behavior on a given fire and day, the manager may attempt to control rate of spread during a specific time period in the hope that the moisture release rate would stay below the threshold, thus preventing possible erratic behavior. Fuel managers could also begin considering fuel loads that would hold the possible released moisture down below a climatologically determined level that divided blow-up from well behaved fire probabilities.”

Old Sawyer

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6/29/06
Old Sawyer

Thanks for bringing up the idea of released moisture. Do you know if the article is available online, vs. having to buy a back issue of the journal? I imagine there must be a break-even point where the fuels are still dry enough to contribute to extreme fire behavior, but contain enough moisture to contribute to plume dominance?

This reminds me of something I've been wondering about, although I don't want to impede discussion of your original topic. It seems like people have often observed a calm before a fire blows up. I think it is mentioned in the Dude investigation and I've observed it at least once. Anyone have a theory on why this happens? My first thought was that you might be in a lull as the wind changes direction, but it seems like in that situation the winds are often kind of squirrelly for a while rather than dead calm.

Still Out There as an AD

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6/29/06
Still Out There:

Dr. Potter sent me his articles during our discussions of the subject. (See above studies)

He agreed with my estimation that the 1500 acre fire (200 new acres that morning) would have added on the order of more than 5 Million kilograms of water into the column in an otherwise relatively dry air mass. The remaining issues include how it mixes and a lot of factors affecting downbursts. Fires as small as 100 acres can produce rain drops. Rain drops fell on Paul Gleason. Paul Linse, some of the Perryville crew, also at the Control road and at the subdivision before the downburst. In addition, Tony Sciacca and Nando Lucero noted the smoke laying down near the burnout further up Walkmoore Canyon, and decided to pull the Prescott Hotshots out, told the adjoining Alpine Hotshots, Jim Mattingly, and they both tried to call and contact Perryville but Perryville was already on the run escaping from the downslope run from the downburst further down the canyon. Paul Linse also noticed the area smoke in further up the canyon. The smoke laying down further up the canyon was not noticed until a few minutes after the burnover in the canyon below them. High winds did not involve the upper canyon until after the burnover below, from which Hatch walked out back up the canyon and was found by Gleason, Linse and Mattingly.

Old Sawyer

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Photos, Videos, & Tributes

  • Memorial at the old Payson Station (now a museum), location below

    Memorial to those who died on the Dude Fire and others Memorial to those who died on the Dude Fire and others

    “Dedicated to Firefighters who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our magnificent Mogollon Rim Country.”

    • Sandra J. Bachman, Perryville Crew Guard, 6/26/90 burned over in Dude Fire
    • James E. Ellis, 6/26/90 Dude Fire entrapment
    • Joseph L. Chacon, 6/26/90 Dude Fire entrapment
    • Alex S. Contreras, 6/26/90 Dude Fire entrapment
    • James L. Denney, 6/26/90 Dude Fire entrapment
    • Curtis E. Springfield, 6/26/90 Dude Fire entrapment
  • Memorial location in Payson, AZ
  • YouTube, 2008: Alpine Hotshot Crew - The Dude Fire

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Contributors to this article: Mike Johns, Old Sawyer, Tim Stubbs (NMAirBear)

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