Their fate was sealed five miles overhead as the top of the roiling mushroom cloud of hot air began to disintegrate. But they didn’t know it — not yet, not down on the ground, with their chain saws, their sooty camaraderie and their transformed lives. They were young and strong and tough, and could not conceive of the inferno about to overtake them.
Down there, crawling across the smoking earth, the Perryville fire crew thought they had the monster chained and muzzled. They had worked all through the night with their shovels and axes and chain saws to firm up the double bulldozer line thrown across the path of the fierce Dude Fire to protect the evacuated homes of Bonita Creek Estates.
Big James Denney, 39, worked steadily. He’d been in trouble since he was 9, winding up finally in Perryville Prison. But friends said he was a changed man since landing a spot on the fire crew.
James Ellis labored down the slope. Quiet and popular, he was a soft touch for animals — especially the injured birds he regularly nursed back to health in his cell.
Assistant Warden Sandy Bachman, a “people person,” just engaged to a deputy at the prison and was respected by the men on the crew.
Up the slope, veteran firefighter Dave LaTour fretted about having to rely on fitfully connected hand radios. An instructor for Rural Metro Fire Department, he’d fought the beast in every guise since 1978.
Lightning started the fire on June 25 and the Forest Service quickly marshaled air tankers and 500 firefighters — but it grew to 2,000 acres in the first day, driven by tinder-dry fuels, low humidity, erratic winds, high temperatures — and fuels that had accumulated for 50 years since the last fire.
Firefighters paid the price
Should have fled
They should have dropped their tools and run for their lives right then, according to later reconstructions of the disaster.
Overhead, the superheated column of smoke hit a mass of cold air at 30,000 feet. The result produced a “plume dominated” fire for the first time on record.
At about 2 p.m., the Hotshot crew above the Perryville crew reported a “frightening calm.” The cap of cooler air far above had overcome the energy in the rising column of superheated air. As the dead calm settled over the smoky forest, the Hotshot crew higher up scrambled for the safety zone they had created.
Tragically, the Perryville crew remained isolated on a different radio frequency and was slower to recognize the gathering disaster.
The convection cell collapsed, sending 40- to 70-mph winds blasting outward in every direction, creating 170-foot-long tongues of flame. Whole trees ignited in an instant.
Down in Walk Moore Canyon, LaTour observed the change, as a blast of 50-mph wind swept across the firebreak. Immediately, the midday sky blackened, turning a glowering, dark orange “like a sunset,” LaTour later recalled.
Crackling over the radio, the crew heard a transmission from the Navajo crew below — “Get out. Get out.” A lookout for the Navajo crew further down the canyon had spotted a solid wall of 100-foot-tall flames rolling over the ridge toward them.
The Perryville crew sprinted toward the Control Road. The crew was strung out all along the break, so the 11 firefighters in the upper reaches of the canyon had twice as far to run. They ran for their lives at a speed of 7 mph. The flames advanced at 11 mph.
Navajo Crew Chief Louis Sorrell saw several members of the Perryville crew run past him, still carrying chain saws. He yelled at them to drop the heavy saws and keep going, then turned and headed down behind them. “The fire was right on our tail,” he recalled. “We could hear the roaring and crackling, running sound.”
Several crew members reported seeing a terrified elk running alongside them down the canyon. They repeatedly fell, got up, helped one another and scrambled down the slope. They reached the Control Road just ahead of the flames and jumped onto fire trucks already starting to move.