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The Story Of A Forest Fire Arizona Hoped Would Never Be Repeated

Twenty-three years ago a forest fire was among one of the most tragic days in U.S. Forest Service history. Jaime Joyce looks back at the prison inmates who died fighting the Dude Fire, and the families who struggled for justice.

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At 12:30 in the afternoon on Monday, June 25, 1990, lightning flashed above the Tonto National Forest near Payson, Arizona, about 100 miles northeast of Phoenix. It started a fire just south of the Mogollon Rim. Within an hour, the fire had spread over five acres. By 4:15 p.m., more than 100 acres of manzanita brush, scrub oak, and old-growth ponderosa pine had been consumed in what was by then called the Dude Fire, named for Dude Creek, where the lightning had touched down and ignited the blaze. Propelled by brisk winds, the flames moved fast. Initial attack crews were called in. Helicopters dangled collapsible canvas buckets from sturdy cords and dipped them into nearby lakes and ponds to gather thousands of gallons of water and dump it on the fire. Air tankers dropped bright red slurry, a fire retardant. Neither had much effect. At 6 p.m., the U.S. Forest Service called in 18 wildland fire crews, each made up of 20 team members, from across the state and beyond, to help suppress the Dude Fire. One was a crew of inmate firefighters from the Arizona State Prison at Perryville.

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