Dude Fire Memorial Grove – Payson, Arizona - Atlas Obscura
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Dude Fire Memorial Grove

Payson, Arizona

This small memorial is dedicated to the Perryville State Prison firefighters who perished fighting the Dude Fire in 1990.  

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The summer of 1990 was extremely hot in Arizona. Temperatures in Phoenix hit a record-breaking 122 degrees Fahrenheit, and even at the highest elevations of northern Arizona, triple-digit temperatures were recorded in some areas. Years of failed wildfire management policies resulted in an overgrown and unhealthy forest full of dense underbrush. The forests of northern Arizona were a tinderbox, and on June 25, a bolt of lightning provided the spark that ignited sections of three national forests.

The response by the United States Forest Service was immediate. Within minutes, aircraft were circling above scouting the perimeters of the fire. Within the hour, tanker planes dumped tons of fire retardant onto the flames. Despite their efforts, the conditions on the ground made controlling the wildfire impossible. It was simply too hot, dry, and windy to control the blaze.

The next day, over a dozen wildland firefighting crews, including a crew composed of inmates from Perryville State Prison, were called in to fight the wildfire. The Perryville crew was sent to work in Walk Moore Canyon. The community of Bonita Creek sat just above the small canyon and was surrounded by the Tonto National Forest on all sides. The orders to the Perryville crew were to do everything possible to help protect Bonita Creek. Winds picked up in the afternoon and walls of flames 30 feet high began racing through the canyon at an estimated 60 miles per hour. This cut the firefighters off from their designated safety zones. Soon their position was overrun by flames, and they were forced to deploy their emergency fire shelters. Eleven members of the Perryville Crew were entrapped by the fire. Eventually, the fire killed six of the firefighters; one prison guard and five inmates.

The fire was deemed under control by that July. The fire burned over 24,000 acres and cost $7.5 million to fight. The governor of Arizona posthumously pardoned the deceased inmate firefighters. At the time, it was the deadliest wildland firefighting disaster in Arizona history. Paul Gleason, superintendent for one of the crews at the Dude Fire, recognized that the way wildland firefighting was conducted was flawed, with not enough emphasis on safety and training. He developed a new model for wildland firefighting that standardized the use of lookouts, communication, escape routes, and safety zones that has since been adopted nationally.

Today, a trail is maintained through Walk Moore Canyon that passes by six memorials marking the spots where each of the firefighters fell. The residents of Bonita Creek wanted to do something more to show their gratitude to the Perryville fire crew and erected a small memorial, with planted trees and the listed names of the deceased. 

Know Before You Go

The memorial grove is located in Bonita Creek Estates, just downhill from the community is Walk Moore Canyon. The last several miles to the canyon and Bonita Creek Estates are dirt roads, but are well-maintained and should be easily driveable by most cars.