We reacted to the Dude Fire as though it was a fluke – a freak of the heat and the drought and the weather.
But it wasn’t a fluke. It was a portent.
The Dude Fire ushered in the age of disaster in the abused and deformed forests of northern Arizona. Firefighters learned harsh lessons from the tragedy, although we have lost firefighters repeatedly since then – including 19 in the needless Yarnell Fire disaster. Firefighting strategy and scale have changed dramatically, with the federal government now spending nearly $4 billion annually to deploy thousands of firefighters with military organization and precision.
Unfortunately, the rest of us learned very little, making the courage and expertise of those firefighters increasingly futile.
We continued building our homes in the thick, unhealthy forests. We allowed the timber industry to stagger, struggle and die. We roofed our houses with shake shingles. We spent almost nothing on forest thinning and restoration. We let thickets of brush and trees grow thick in our neighborhoods and against the sides of our houses. We built subdivisions with no back-door escape route. We rebuilt even the subdivisions the wildfires consumed – with no change in the building codes. We filled the woods with campers, who left untended campfires by the hundreds and the thousands. The forests grew thicker. The droughts grew longer. The temperatures rose.
Then came June 18, 2002, and the Rodeo Chediski – the most glaring possible rebuke to our willful foolishness.
The fire developed a whole series of plumes like the one that collapsed with such terrible effect in the Dude Fire. The plumes rose to 40,000 feet, collapsed and blasted fire in every direction. Then they formed again and repeated the process. A collapsing plume could advance the fire line by five miles in 15 minutes. It could also drop softball-sized embers on forests and rooftops a mile from the flame front.
Firefighters reported flame lengths of 1,500 feet – making full-sized ponderosa pines look like weeds against the pillar of fire.
The fire consumed 465 homes, six businesses, 23 garages and outbuildings – in part because it simply outran firefighters and roared through several small, forested, poorly prepared communities before they had a chance to create buffer zones and start backfires – the only way to slow or divert the spread of the flames. Those communities might have survived had they met Wildlands Urban Interface (WUI) building codes when it came to building materials, overhanging eves, fire-proof roofs and porches. Those communities might have survived with cleared buffer zones and "fire wise" brush clearing through the neighborhoods.