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The tragic tale of another deadly Arizona wildfire
The incredible story of a 1990 Arizona forest fire, the prison inmates who died fighting it, and the families who struggled for justice
 
A makeshift memorial for the 19 firefighters who died in the June 30 wildfire — sadly, not Arizona's first deadly blaze.
A makeshift memorial for the 19 firefighters who died in the June 30 wildfire — sadly, not Arizona's first deadly blaze. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

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.

Seventeen inmates from Perryville's minimum-security San Pedro unit served on the fire crew. The men ranged in age from 22 to 39. Among them were Joseph Chacon, 25, and Curtis Springfield, 24, who had both been convicted of aggravated assault; Geoff Hatch, 27, who had been in prison since 1984, charged with theft and burglary; and James Ellis, who was 34 and serving a 20-year sentence for manslaughter. Their bosses were correctional officers Larry Terra, 30, and Sandra Bachman, 43. A third crew boss, Dave LaTour, would later arrive separately.

The inmates and staff were certified Type II wildland firefighters. Type II crews have less experience than Type I Interagency Hotshot crews, which are made up of career and part-time firefighters who live and work together throughout the fire season. The Perryville crew was trained according to standards established by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, no differently than the civilian crews that battled forest fires throughout the West. But civilian Type II firefighters at the time earned between $7 and $8 an hour and, with overtime included, could make enough money in six months to spend the rest of the year on the beach, as some of the younger ones did.

In contrast, Perryville crew members earned between 40 and 50 cents an hour. The pay didn't matter to them. Neither did the inherent risks of the job. Wildland firefighting is brutal, sometimes dangerous, work. Heart attacks and burnover — in which fire overcomes a crew, forcing them to take cover in portable fire shelters until the flames pass — are among the most common causes of death, the former brought on by extreme physical exertion. But the inmates weren't focused on that. They considered it a privilege to fight fire, and a spot on the crew was coveted. Good behavior inside the prison had earned them the opportunity to get past the razor wire and the gates and the floodlights that loomed above the Perryville complex, way out there in the middle of the Sonoran Desert northwest of Phoenix.

For sure, the job beat doing other people's laundry or slapping together bologna sandwiches in an institutional kitchen. Plus, it offered the chance to spend weeks at a time camped out in sleeping bags under the stars, with steak and pork chops for supper at the campsite. But there was something else that made the work special, as good for the soul as it was for the stomach: In prison, the men had to wear all orange, all the time. Yet dressed in the firefighting uniform — yellow flame-resistant Nomex jackets, olive green pants, lace-up leather boots, and hard hats — no one could tell that the men were prisoners. And to the people whose homes or land or lives the men saved, they weren't felons. They were firefighters. Heroes. They commanded respect.

By 7:30 that evening, the Perryville crew had reached Payson. Four other inmate crews operated within the state of Arizona at the time, out of the Douglas, Fort Grant, Winslow, and Yuma prisons, as part of a contractual agreement between the Arizona State Land Department and the Arizona Department of Corrections. But the U.S. Forest Service specifically requested Perryville for this job. Civilian crews regarded Perryville as hardworking and professional. Except for Bachman, who had never been on a fire, the Perryville crew members had worked together on two fires in the weeks before Dude, and had fought seven forest and brush fires the previous year.

Once on-site, the men were ordered to eat dinner, then head to the base camp to check in. On their way there, the crew was redirected to the Bonita Creek Estates, an enclave of about 80 vacation homes and year-round residences on private land surrounded by national forest. Their assignment: Protect the homes there. Situated on a ridge high above the rolling hills, homes in Bonita Creek offered sweeping views. The men arrived at the subdivision around 1 a.m., and, shortly after that, they were once again redirected, this time to the junction of Walk Moore Canyon and Control Road, where they arrived at 2:30 in the morning.

Walk Moore Canyon rests in the valley west of Bonita Creek Estates. Seven crews were positioned in the canyon in an arc that ran north to southwest along steep and rocky terrain. The Redmond Hotshots were farthest north, followed by the Zigzag, Flathead, Prescott, and Alpine hotshot crews. The Type II crews, Perryville and Navajo, came next. The fire had now consumed close to 500 acres. More than 2,000 firefighters and other personnel were on duty. Flames jumped from one treetop to the next in a phenomenon called crowning. Burning embers started more fires, called spot fires, and before long, the main fire caught up with the spots until all the flames blended together in one fast-moving wave.

Perryville's first task was to clear a fire line along a jeep trail up the canyon from Control Road. The purpose of the line was to stop the spread of fire by digging deep into the canyon's red dirt, clear down to black, mineral soil, creating a defensive ditch. Using shovels and other hand tools, the Perryville crew removed any fuel that could feed the flame: dry logs, pine needles, leaves, and brush. Partway up the canyon, an electric power line ran overhead, following the slope east to the Bonita Creek Estates. The crew was directed to dig a fire line along this path, which they did, working throughout the night, guided only by the light of headlamps clamped onto their helmets. When they arrived at the top of the ridge at 5:00 in the morning, the men had been on duty for 11 hours. They continued to work for an additional five.

It was now Tuesday, June 26. In Phoenix, it was 122 degrees, the highest temperature that had ever been recorded in the city. Flights in and out of Sky Harbor airport were interrupted for several hours. It wasn't clear whether some aircraft could safely take off and land in temperatures above 120 degrees — flight operations charts didn't go any higher. By the end of the day, at least three people in Phoenix had died from the heat. The temperature in Payson hit 106 degrees.

By the afternoon, the Perryville crew was back in Walk Moore Canyon, improving the fire line that they'd started to dig before dawn. Around 1:00, they ran out of water. Larry Terra, the crew boss, and Fred Hill, 37, an inmate firefighter and an assistant squad boss, walked downhill to Control Road to get more. Sandra Bachman, an assistant crew boss, stayed behind, as did Dave LaTour, a Tucson Rural/Metro firefighter with 12 years experience, assigned by the U.S. Forest Service to lead the Perryville crew. The day before, around 5:00 p.m., LaTour had received a call to come to Payson. He packed his bag, said goodbye to his wife, Vicki, and headed to the base camp, where he arrived at a quarter past nine that evening.

Terra sent a Forest Service employee uphill on an all-terrain vehicle to deliver water to the crew. An hour later, Perryville crew members gathered around the ATV to refill their canteens. If the water was cool at first, it didn't stay that way long in this heat. Still, hydration was critical. It was already hot enough in the canyon, and with the added weight of the firefighter's gear and clothing, the heat was staggering. Filled with water bottles, snacks, goggles, toilet paper, maps, handbooks, compasses, and fusees — highway flares used by wildland firefighters to start prescribed burns — each crew member's backpack weighed at least 40 pounds.

The Perryville crew went back to digging line around 2:15 p.m. Soon after, winds began driving hard and fast down the canyon. The fire was behaving erratically. Quick-changing weather made it hard to predict what the fire would do. It had sprinkled earlier in the day. "If only it would keep raining," Bachman said to crew member James Denney, the squad boss. Rain might help calm the fire. At 39, Denney was the oldest man on the crew. In prison since 1980, he had nine years to go on a 20-year sentence for burglary. But the raindrops dried up as quickly as they came, and an eerie calm settled over the forest. The sky went black.

"Get out!" yelled firefighter Edison Notah, of the Navajo crew.

Positioned just south of Perryville, Notah was able to see through the tree canopy. The fire was blowing up. A column of superheated clouds mixed with smoke and burning debris towered above the forest. The column was later estimated to be 40,000 feet tall and six miles wide. It collapsed when colder air suddenly burst downward, pushing the fire through the dry, dense undergrowth that choked the forest floor. Arizona was in its third year of drought, so the fuels were bone-dry. Sixty-mile-per-hour winds moved the fire over and down the ridge from the west to the east side of Walk Moore Canyon. The Perryville crew was directly in its path.

Navajo and Perryville raced down the canyon along the rocky trail to Control Road. The road had been established earlier as an escape route. Some firefighters threw down their tools to run faster. Perryville crew member Robert Carrillo, 32, a stocky man with silver hair, did not. He instinctively held onto his chainsaw as if the machine was a weapon he could use to defend himself against the oncoming flames. But the weight of the machine slowed him down. So did his chaps. They kept slipping below his hips, making it hard for him to pick up speed.

Crew member Patrick Flippen, 27, ran alongside Carrillo. He was tall and thin. He snatched the chainsaw so that Carrillo could hold up his chaps as he ran. But Flippen fell, and was helped to his feet by a Navajo crew member who was also on his way down the steep hill. Burning embers the size of pinecones popped off from the trees, and thick, white smoke crept into the canyon, making it hard to see and even harder to breathe. Flippen stopped to catch his breath, then continued running before he fell down again. Now Terra helped Flippen get up and it was his turn to take the chainsaw.

The Navajo crew made it out. But when the fire jumped the line meant to keep it at bay, the Perryville crew was separated into two groups. Nine crew members made it to Control Road, where they climbed onto the back of a pickup truck that was waiting to get them out. The rest of them were trapped.

Eleven crew members — 10 men and Bachman — turned around and ran back up the canyon, about three-tenths of a mile, away from Control Road, and deeper into the forest. A black, rolling fireball of dense smoke and superheated air barreled downhill. It looked like a monster, or a demon, some thought, and was unlike anything they'd ever seen. The fire was otherworldly. Its size and sound were terrifying. A 100-foot wall of flame rose behind the crew. It roared like a steam engine. There was nowhere to escape.

LaTour ordered the crew to deploy their fire shelters. Made of aluminum foil bonded to fiberglass cloth, these individual-size tarps are designed to both reflect and absorb high heat. Breathable air is trapped inside. The crew members had no choice but to lie beneath the shelters facedown on the forest floor. They'd been trained to slip their arms and legs into straps sewn into the corners of the tarps to hold them securely against the ground. They knew to position their feet toward the fire. They would let the flames roll over the shelters, then wait there until it was safe to come out.

Donald Love, 30, deployed his shelter first, near the dozer line. To the left of Love was Curtis Springfield. Below Love and to his right was William Davenport. One of the youngest men on the crew, Springfield also had the shortest sentence, seven and a half years on a conviction for aggravated assault, which he began serving in 1986, just two months shy of his 20th birthday.

James Denney and Bachman kept running. As they ran, Denney helped Bachman pull her shelter from her pack. It was hard to get to with leather gloves on. Denney then got into his shelter alongside Davenport and LaTour. Bachman was on the ground and in her shelter soon after, next to James Ellis, Geoff Hatch, and Alex Contreras.

About 60 feet downhill from the group, Joseph Chacon lay underneath his shelter. Greg Hoke waited out the firestorm in his shelter, 400 feet from Chacon. He'd made it the closest to Control Road. The wind was so fierce his shelter flipped over.

"We're going to make it," LaTour told the crew members near him. "Stay calm. Stay in your shelters. Stay on the ground." He reminded them to keep talking to one another. "We're Perryville. We're tough. We're gonna make this. We're gonna be okay," he heard those close to him say. During a deployment, talking is supposed to ease anxiety. But it was hard for crew members to hear one another as the fire ripped through the canyon. The flame front came in three waves, each just a few minutes apart. From inside the shelters, bright orange flames were visible through pinholes in the seams. When hot wind from one of the flame fronts lifted LaTour's shelter, smoke and debris rushed in, and he was burned.

LaTour soon heard screams mixed with the sound of rushing wind and flame. The fire was so fast and conditions so extreme that some of the crew members weren't secure inside the tents. When they had first spotted the fire, it was 75 feet away, at best, and that gave them just one minute to get inside their shelters before being overcome by the flames.

A hot, flaming branch fell onto Davenport's shelter and burned his legs. Denney abandoned his shelter and ran toward Chacon, near the dozer line. Chacon pulled Denney into his shelter and tried to protect him by lying on top of him. Both were later found dead.

Ellis left his shelter. He walked to the creek bed, near Hoke, who was still tucked safely inside his tent. "I'm hurt bad," Ellis said. "My shelter didn't work."

Meanwhile, Springfield's lungs burned from inhaling hot gases and smoke. He, too, got out of his shelter. "I can't take it anymore," he said. He stumbled toward Love's shelter then back to the dozer line, which is where he died.

Hatch's shelter was damaged. The front was kicked off, or blown off by the wind. He got out of his shelter and walked unsteadily toward the dozer line.

The burnover lasted about 15 minutes. Shelters are designed to withstand temperatures up to 1,200 degrees. It must have been hotter in the heart of the flame front, since some of the shelters started to delaminate, the aluminum exterior separating from the fiberglass lining.

Davenport, Love, and LaTour stayed put. They waited inside their shelters until the area cooled down. LaTour used his radio to call for help but no one answered on any of the channels. Through the chatter, he heard someone say that help was coming. When the men finally emerged about 45 minutes later, shaky and weak, they followed the dozer line toward Control Road, their tattered shelters wrapped around their bodies like capes. As they walked, LaTour told the men not to look at the devastation that surrounded them. "We have to get out," he said.

On the way down, they met Hoke, who was still inside his shelter. He emerged from his cocoon and joined the survivors. Ellis appeared next. As he walked toward the men, with his shelter tied around his forehead, his skin and clothing burned, the life drained out of him. "I'm dead," Ellis told the others, and then he sat down on a log and died.

No one was waiting for the men at Control Road. Again, LaTour radioed for help and got no response. He headed west with his men about 200 yards, which is where a Forest Service truck met them. The men climbed into the bed of the pickup and were taken to a clearing, where they were given first aid. They were brought to the base camp next and flown by helicopter to Maricopa Medical Center, in Phoenix.

Before the flame front hit, the Alpine Hotshots foreman, Jim "J.P." Mattingly, and his men had been conducting a burnout in Walk Moore Canyon just north of Perryville, using gasoline-filled drip torches to light small fires in order to clear vegetation and stop the spread of the blaze. When Mattingly saw the fire approaching, he had ordered his men to run north up the canyon, in the opposite direction of Perryville and Navajo. He had stepped away from the safety zone to take in his surroundings when he came across Paul Gleason, superintendent of the Zigzag Hotshots, and Paul Linse, superintendent of Flathead. Mattingly told the men that Perryville and Navajo had gone back toward Control Road, and that nobody else should be heading north up the canyon. But Gleason wanted to make sure no one was left. "Do you mind if we go back that way?" he asked. No one objected.

Their actions defied human instinct. The men walked back in the direction of the inferno. Soon, they saw a man staggering toward them. It was Geoff Hatch, from the Perryville crew. He was badly burned on his face and neck. His skin was ashen and sloughing off. His body was smoking, and Mattingly's fingers were singed when he placed them on Hatch's neck to feel his pulse. The firefighter's clothing was brittle and crumbled to the touch. An aluminum tarp was hanging over his head, like a hood. "Damn fire shelters didn't work," Hatch said.

Gleason radioed for help. Emergency medical technicians soon arrived to help care for the injured firefighter. When an EMT poured water on Hatch to slow the burn, it boiled on contact. Paramedics removed what clothes they could from Hatch and, in an effort to preserve the tissue, they cut around the parts adhered to his skin. They covered him in a clean sheet, started an IV then lifted him onto a stretcher. Five men carried Hatch uphill, which took about 20 minutes. At 170 pounds, Hatch was not easy to carry, and with the flames still untamed, the men wondered if they could get him out of Walk Moore Canyon without putting their own lives at risk.

Alpine crew members called sawyers used chainsaws to clear trees from a hilltop near the safety zone at Bonita Creek, creating a space for a medical evacuation helicopter to touch down. Another chopper came in first and dropped water on the spot to settle the dust. Then came the medevac. It hovered in the smoke above the helibase, then landed on the blackened earth, where it was ringed by scorched tree stumps and gnarled limbs. The men hoisted Hatch inside the copter as fast as they could. Like the others before him, Hatch was flown to Maricopa Medical Center and admitted to the burn unit, in critical condition.

Trapped on the hilltop, the Alpine crew waited for rescue vehicles to bring them to safety. For two hours, they listened to the sounds coming from Bonita Creek as fire overtook the subdivision. People had been evacuated, but some animals had been left behind. Dogs howled as the flames washed over them. Cats and horses cried, and propane tanks exploded in the heat.

By Saturday, June 30, the Dude Fire was finally contained. Over the course of five days, the fire had burned more than 24,000 acres, destroyed 75 homes and other structures, including the famous cabin of the Western writer Zane Grey, and killed 25 elk and 30 head of cattle. More than 2,600 people helped fight the blaze. It claimed the lives of six people, all from the Perryville prison crew: Sandra Bachman and five inmates: Joseph Chacon, Alex Contreras, James Denney, James Ellis, and Curtis Springfield. Today, the Arizona Department of Corrections website lists the prison release date of the five Perryville inmates as 6-26-1990. Release type: death.


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Carol Springfield dreams about caskets. She is Curtis Springfield's mother, and she and her husband, Ron, live in Gilbert, Arizona, southeast of Phoenix, in the same modest home where they raised their son and two daughters. "I only dream the caskets," Carol said recently, when asked to explain. "I can never see faces." Carol's dreams preceded the deaths of her mother, father, and niece. Before her son Curtis was killed in the Dude Fire, Carol had a premonition. The next day, on the job at Microchip Technology, where she worked in the clean room — a sterile, climate-controlled environment where silicon wafers are transformed into computer chips for cell phones and other electronic devices — Carol couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong. She stopped at Rosita's restaurant on the way home for takeout Mexican food. At home with Ron, a usually soft-spoken production manager at U.S. Door & Building Components, Carol turned on the news. "And I never watch the news," she said. "But I came home, turned on the news, saw the fire. I looked at Ron and I said, 'Curtis is dead.'"

"Don't start that shit," Ron told his wife. "Don't say that."

"No, Curtis is dead," Carol said. "I know he is. Call them."

Ron called the Arizona Department of Corrections. People are missing, he was told. But the DOC didn't give details. It didn't matter, Carol said. "I already knew."

Ron kept calling. He called all evening. "We had no information whatsoever at that time," he said. Fire overran the Perryville crew at 2:30 that afternoon, but it wasn't until midnight that the DOC confirmed that Curtis Springfield was among the dead. "We pretty much pulled it out of them," Ron said. The news was devastating.

Curtis Eugene Springfield was born in Chandler, Arizona, on June 10, 1966. He was a good kid, the Springfields recall. "He could draw you to a T," Carol said. "He could look at you and just draw you just like you look right now." After Curtis died, Ron showed some of his son's work to an art professor at Arizona State University, in Tempe. "For a kid who's never had any actual training, this is nothing but pure, raw talent," the professor told Ron. "This kid, he had a career." Curtis had a knack for detail, Ron said. "He drew a picture one time of Einstein, and just the wisdom in the eyes and in the face, it's absolutely amazing."

When he was young, Curtis wasn't into sports. But he did love to roller skate. "The kid could just do wonders on skates," Ron said. At one point, Curtis even had a job at Skateland, a popular roller-skating rink in nearby Mesa. Impressed with his moves, Skateland hired Curtis to provide entertainment for children's parties. His uniform: roller skates and a plush white bunny rabbit costume. "He would get out there at these little birthday parties for kids and clown around and skate with them and do all kinds of things," Ron said.

Curtis stopped skating when he got older. It wasn't a great way to meet girls. "He was a ladies' man," Carol said. Handsome and cool. He wore his wavy blond hair long, listened to the heavy metal band, Def Leppard, and started smoking pot. Carol took the tough-love approach. "I told him as long as he was on drugs that he couldn't be here," she said. Curtis went to live with a friend. Later, Carol said, the friend's mother accused Curtis of beating her up. The Springfields said this wasn't something their son would do. "When Curtis was as mad as he could be, he never touched any of us," Carol said. "He had never been a violent person," Ron added. "I really, really and truly had a hard time believing it." Soon after, Curtis appeared in the Maricopa County Superior Court. He pleaded not guilty, but was convicted of aggravated assault, a Class 3 felony, and was ordered to serve his time at the Arizona State Prison complex in Perryville.

With few exceptions, Arizona State prison inmates are required to work while incarcerated, and Curtis had several jobs at Perryville. He worked as a barber for 20 cents an hour, and earned 35 cents an hour working in the kitchen. Then, after three years at Perryville, he got a spot on the fire crew. His parents were proud. "He was just excited to get out of the gates, to get out there and do something else besides being locked up," Carol said. Four months later, Curtis was dead. "I never thought it would be my son when I had the dream," Carol said, referring to the casket that appeared in her dream the night before the fire.

A week after the burnover, Perryville held a memorial service. It was already 82 degrees first thing in the morning. By the afternoon the temperature was 106, and the sun's rays were searing. Families, friends, inmates, and staff, about 250 people in all, gathered underneath a tent that had been set up on the prison's athletic field. Larry Terra did roll call. Surviving Perryville crew members said "here." Silence came after the names of those who died. To honor them, six yellow balloons were released into the sky. An inmate group sang "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." The Associated Press covered the event and the reporter spoke to an inmate named Dannie Wilson, who said he was a friend of firefighter James Denney. "J.D. really changed," Wilson said. "Instead of drugs, he spoke about the fire team. I thought he went off the deep end or gone crazy on me."

Steven Pender was one of the Perryville survivors, and at 22 years old, the youngest member of the crew. He and the others went to six funerals that summer, Pender recalled. They wore their firefighting uniforms and were accompanied by prison guards. "We went to funerals every other day," said Pender, who served nearly seven years for armed robbery. At Bachman's funeral, each man was allowed to place a single long-stem rose on the coffin. "My feeling was that they whisked us over there just to make a showing for the cameras and the news and all that shit," Pender said. "It was like they whisked us in, we did our thing, and then they whisked us out."

In the Phoenix New Times, Darrin Hostetler wrote about the state's refusal to pay for the inmates' burial. James Ellis's parents held his funeral at the Evergreen Mortuary in Tucson. Representatives from the Arizona Department of Corrections at first told families that funeral expenses would be covered, and then later took back the offer. The reason, prison spokesman Michael Arra said at the time, was that "DOC money isn't budgeted for something like that." Without assistance, Ellis's family couldn't pay.

Bill Addison, the president of the Evergreen Mortuary, told the New Times the DOC told him they couldn't pay "because of legal constraints." Addison ended up taking care of the bill himself because, he said, "it was the right thing to do, and someone had to do it."

The DOC did launch a fund-raising effort, collecting donations at state prisons and government offices. Eventually, the Firefighters' Burial Fund totaled $11,000, but the DOC announced that instead of being given to the families, the money would go toward the purchase of a used fire truck for the Perryville crew and a plaque to honor the deceased firefighters. When critics spoke out against the expenditure, noting that the people who donated money thought that it was going to the families, Arra said that the money came from the Firefighters' Memorial Fund, a separate pool of money gathered through corporate donations. According to him, the Burial Fund in fact raised $19,000 and it had been distributed equally amongst the five families, who received the money in late October, months after the men's funerals. For her part, Donna Leone Hamm, of the Arizona-based inmate advocacy group Middle Ground Prison Reform, had doubts about the DOC's motivation, telling the New Times that the Memorial Fund surfaced only when inmate advocates spoke out about what they believed to be the improper use of money in the original Burial Fund.

A Republican state lawmaker, Jenny Norton, pressed for legislation that would require the DOC to pay burial costs for inmate firefighters killed in the line of duty. Because Bachman was a state employee, her next of kin was eligible to receive $100,000 in worker's compensation benefits, but the inmates' families received nothing. "It was tragedy enough what happened to those men and their families," she told the New Times. "But when I heard DOC wouldn't even pay to bury them, I was just sickened."

Arra, the DOC spokesman, expressed opposition to the language of Norton's bill, suggesting that it instead guarantee death benefits to inmates killed "in meritorious service to the state" in order to prevent what he called "frivolous" claims. "There are thousands of prisoners working in Arizona on the highways, in kitchens, and everywhere else," Arra said, "and every time one of them cuts their finger with a potato peeler they could claim they were injured in the line of duty."

Norton retired from the legislature one year after the Dude Fire. Today, she is an associate minister of social justice, emeritus, at Desert Springs church, in Chandler, Arizona. "I had very minimal support and could not even get a committee hearing," Norton recalled. "The climate of the legislature at that time never allowed for any compensation to be put into statute." To this day, neither the Arizona Department of Corrections nor the state of Arizona pays to bury inmate firefighters killed on the job. "Isn't that tragic?" Norton asked.

At the Payson Ranger Station, the U.S. Forest Service dedicated a monument to the firefighters: a bronze statue of a wildland firefighter and a plaque with the names of the dead Perryville crew members and others killed fighting fires in Mogollon Rim country. At Bonita Creek Estates, homeowners built a memorial for the Perryville firefighters, with each person's name inscribed on a simple wooden signpost, and they planted six trees in Walk Moore Canyon. This is where the Springfields came to spread Curtis's ashes.

"Different people have different ways of coping," Ron Springfield said when asked how he and his wife made it through the difficult months and years that followed their son's death. "I threw myself into my work. I was working 60, 70, even more hours a week. It wasn't because I had to. It was my way of keeping my sanity at the time. But what really got me through was that weekend I had spent with him just a couple of weeks before it happened. We had a great visit." Ron's voice began to crack.

Curtis sent Ron a letter after that visit. In it, he told Ron how much he enjoyed their time together, and that he loved him. That letter is among Ron's most cherished possessions. Carol holds onto something different. After the fire, without warning, Carol said, the Arizona Department of Corrections sent an envelope to her home. Inside was Curtis's driver's license, burned by the fire and cracked in two. More than 20 years later, she still keeps it in her wallet. Has the passage of time helped her heal? "Oh, it's gotten better," Carol said. Sometimes, she still gets weepy. "But then I can talk, you know? And then sometimes," she said, "I just want to be left alone."


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Within hours of the Dude Fire fatalities, officials at the U.S. Forest Service headquarters in Washington, D.C., assembled a team of investigators from across the country to go to Tonto National Forest. An initial meeting was held at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 27, at the Payson Ranger District Office, and early that evening, when the heat of the day had begun to dissipate, six team members visited Walk Moore Canyon for the first time.

Powdery white and gray ash blanketed the forest floor, and the trees were naked and scorched. Smoke puffed and swirled its way out of burned-out tree stumps. The air smelled strongly of smoke, like a campfire, mixed with the faint but distinct odor of burnt plastic, human hair and flesh. The bodies of the six victims lay along the rocky path, some alone, some grouped together at the main entrapment site further up the canyon. Around one man's body, a fire shelter was wrapped like a coiled snake. Another man lay face up, with one arm at rest against the canyon's iron-rich soil. One was halfway inside his fire shelter and halfway out. The bodies were photographed, then removed by the Gila County Sheriff's Department and taken to the medical examiner's office for autopsy. Investigators later learned that the carbon monoxide levels in some of the victims' bloodstreams was so high — 28.5 percent — that their deaths were likely caused not by burning, but by the inhalation of toxic gases.

Ted Putnam, an equipment specialist from the Missoula Technology and Development Center, in Missoula, Montana, where fire shelters are designed and tested, arrived in Payson soon after the others. His area of expertise was fatality-site investigation, and it was his responsibility to document each and every item at the site and to carefully examine fire clothing and equipment left in the canyon, looking for burn patterns. "What I look at in very, very fine detail is at the area not necessarily where the people died, but from the moment they had an inkling that they were in trouble," Putnam explained in a recent interview. "Everything that's dropped on that fatality site, I can kind of put it back together and tell you a story about what happened to the people in the last few minutes."

Putnam, who has a doctorate degree in psychology, was also interested in understanding the human factors that could have contributed to the Dude Fire fatalities. "Before me, all they ever looked at was, you know, 'the fire burned over some people, the fire killed them,' end of story. And then added to that they'd sometimes say, 'well, the equipment failed. The firefighters failed.' So you blame the firefighters for getting caught in that situation. So I'm also trying to look at the behavioral side of it," Putnam explained. "People don't deliberately want to get burned over."

Putnam started by making his own trip to Walk Moore Canyon. Dressed in green-and-yellow Nomex, leather boots, and a hard hat, Putnam walked up the path from Control Road into the canyon, just as the Perryville firefighters had done two days earlier. Gear and equipment lay scattered and abandoned along the trail. He methodically noted the condition of each item and plotted its location on a schematic map of the accident site.

One of James Ellis's leather gloves was found first, rigid and blackened on the backs and palms. The fingers curled inward, as if he had been grasping at something that he would never reach. The glove had shrunk in size from 10 inches long to 5. Based on the color and condition of the glove, and its placement in the creek bed, away from any possible fuels, Putnam surmised that Ellis had encountered a tremendous amount of heat during the burnover, and from that he could tell that Ellis probably spent more time outside his shelter than inside it.

Next, Putnam saw a mangled fire shelter, with practically all of its outer aluminum foil shell destroyed. Bits and pieces of crumpled foil were dropped at intervals along the trail, providing clues to the firefighter's movement. About 150 yards further along the trail, he found a set of tools — a shovel and an ax-like tool called a Pulaski — whose wooden handles had turned to dust. Later, he found a strip of fiberglass cloth and a sheet of foil torn from another fire shelter. During the fire, the foil probably reached 1,000 degrees, Putnam noted.

A yellow pack with the number 16 stenciled on the front was cast aside on the trail. It belonged to Greg Hoke, one of the Perryville firefighters to make it out of the canyon alive. Thin webbing along the outside of the pack was melted, but the contents of the pack seemed to be in good condition, including papers not the least bit browned. A plastic, yellow fire-shelter case and pull-ring lay in the dirt.

Putnam saw Sandra Bachman's hard hat next. It was melted into the fiberglass lining of her fire shelter, which had completely delaminated. Canteens, warped, black plastic water jugs and radios lay discarded on the path, alongside William Davenport's eyeglasses and the Harley Davidson headband he wore underneath his helmet. Davenport later told investigators that both items had fallen off when he came out of his fire shelter after the burnover.

Putnam was struck by what he observed. "The sad thing is that their packs laying on the ground didn't even burn . . . and my analysis said that all of them would have lived if they would've stayed on the ground and put their nose right next to the ground."

What's worse, Putnam said, was that the firefighters ran with their heavy packs, and if they'd only ditched the packs and dropped their tools, they might have been able to run faster, fast enough to beat the fire. But firefighters are conditioned to hold onto their tools, he said. Inmate firefighters, even more so. Indeed, "All I could think about is if I throw my tools, the state's gonna charge me money for getting rid of state property," Perryville survivor Steven Pender recalled in a separate conversation. "So I kept my tool."

For Putnam, the Dude Fire was pivotal. It was the first big fatality that the U.S. Forest Service had seen in several years. And it was only the second time since fire shelters were developed in the 1960s, and made mandatory in 1977 by the Forest Service, that firefighters died while using them. After the Dude Fire, Putnam's Missoula office instituted annual fire-shelter training that included timed runs with and without packs, and issued a handbook with firsthand accounts of what to expect while waiting beneath what is essentially a sheet of tinfoil as a raging firestorm passes over you. The Missoula office also disseminated a national memo advising firefighters to drop their packs when running uphill. "We were losing people for kind of dumb reasons," Putnam recalled. His opinion was that the Dude Fire was a survivable fire. People didn't have to die.

Interviews with key personnel and written statements were also a major part of the Dude Fire investigation, and they yielded crucial information that would help Putnam and others on the team understand what had happened, and why.

In his typewritten statement, in which he used military time notations, the Navajo crew boss, Louis Sorrell, reported that he had minimal radio contact with other crews due to a lack of equipment on-site. Here is Sorrell's account:

1230 I spoke with Dave [LaTour]. We exchanged fire status, weather conditions, watch-out situations, and last, but (not least), escape routes. 1315 I strung out my crew back down the dozer-line. All this time, we still had no communications with the outside forces besides the Perryville crew and among ourselves. I walked the line a few times. I warned my crew about what a dangerous place we were in.

The chief investigators, Jerry Monesmith and Eldon Ross, met with Ed Hollenshead, the Prescott Type II supervisor, and they logged the firefighter's remarks:

Tried to transition with the Type I team at 1300. Transition was a problem in that it didn't appear the incoming team was recognizing fire behavior and other concerns. . . . At 11:00, line personnel were becoming uncomfortable about the situation. Communications were a problem. The overhead was operating on a Tonto fire freq [frequency] while the crews were on a state freq. . . .Two people were changing off as air attack. One did not perform well and was not responsive to the needs of the ground personnel. Once in a life-time fire behavior situation.

In an interview conducted at the Perryville prison, Larry Terra, the correctional officer and crew boss, told Ross and Monesmith that because they were concentrating on testing new recruits, neither he nor several members of the fire crew had taken the "step test" in 1990. The test was used to determine physical fitness levels by having crew members step up and down on a box for several minutes at a time. It was one of the tests required for wildland firefighter certification. But, Terra noted, the crew had been exercising for 30 minutes to an hour each day — jogging, doing wind sprints, jumping rope, weight lifting, and biking.

At the Dude Fire base camp, investigators Ted Putnam and Dick Mangan interviewed Paul Gleason, the Zigzag Hotshots superintendent. Events were fresh in Gleason's mind, and the images that filled his head were of things he wished he hadn't seen. "Gleason headed down Walk Moore Canyon on the dozer line," Putnam wrote. "He first found an empty shelter, hung a red ribbon and moved on down the line, where he found another empty shelter, then came upon the fatalities. He got very shook up, but regained control. Checked for vital signs and found none."

In the camp's dining area, Patricia Andrews, fire behavior specialist at the Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, in Ogden, Utah, met with Alpine Hotshots foreman J.P. Mattingly. Like Gleason, Mattingly had seen and heard things that would stay with him forever, including the image of the injured firefighter Geoff Hatch, emerging from the smoke, and the words Hatch spoke when the two men came face-to-face on the burned-out trail: "It's gonna get me."

In the interview, Mattingly also questioned the priorities of the incident commanders. "They seemed more concerned with saving structures," Andrews wrote in her log. She quoted Mattingly as saying, "Should we have been in there at all?"

The investigation wrapped up on July 5, 1990, and an Accident Investigation Report, nearly 100 pages in length, was issued two weeks later, on July 20. Among its key findings: lack of communication between the crews, inadequate weather monitoring, and confusion after a shift change as to who was in command of the Perryville crew. The report also noted that 7 of the 10 Standard Fire Orders, and 8 of the 18 Situations that Shout Watch Out (today called 18 Watch Out Situations), a second set of guidelines that wildland firefighters were expected to know and follow, were either ignored or not acted upon. It also found that the fire spread so quickly that Perryville crew members simply did not have time to escape.


On December 18, 1990, in the Superior Court of the State of Arizona, Maricopa County, Phoenix attorney Bill Stephens filed suit against the state of Arizona on behalf of the parents and other surviving family members of the Dude Fire victims: Marvin and Catherine Chacon; Johnny and Sally Contreras; Evelyn Bielak (mother of James Ellis) and Ellis's widow, Michelle Fernane Ellis; and Ron and Carol Springfield. (James Denney's family declined to participate in the lawsuit.) Each family sought $1.2 million, Stephens said, making the total amount of the suit nearly $5 million. In the suit, Stephens also represented three of the Perryville survivors, Tim Smith, Greg Hoke, and Steven Pender, each of whom sued the state for $350,000, according to Stephens.

Born in Kentucky and raised in Arizona, Stephens has neatly trimmed silver hair and a deep tan that comes from a lifetime spent in the Valley of the Sun. He dropped out of high school and went to work at Reynolds Metals, a tool-and-die plant, before being elected to the Arizona State Legislature, where he served from 1956 to 1962. When he decided to leave the legislature to pursue a law degree, Stephens first had to get his GED. He went on to Arizona State University, in Tempe, and completed his law degree at the University of Arizona, in Tucson. The Dude Fire case came his way via Middle Ground Prison Reform's Donna Leone Hamm.

"This inmate crew was darn good," Stephens said at a meeting in his Phoenix office, located in a two-story brick building in the back of a tidy business park. Trouble was, he added, the men weren't adequately trained for a fire like Dude, which, at the time, was the biggest forest fire the state had ever seen.

One of the survivors, Steven Pender, agreed. "We were supposed to be a strictly Type II crew who basically just went in, mopped up after the fire was already done," Pender said. "But the U.S. Forest Service liked how we worked, so they started bringing us on all the bigger fires. We hustled, and we hung in there with the hotshots, so they started calling on us more and more, and then we ended up at the Dude Fire."

In the lawsuit, Stephens claimed that the crew was inadequately trained and supervised. Some of the men had health issues for which they weren't screened, he recalled later, and this could have affected their ability to escape the flames that killed them. James Ellis suffered fainting spells and had poor vision and hearing, Stephens said; Alex Contreras had asthma; Greg Hoke, a hip injury.

State forester Scott Hunt trained the Perryville inmate crew. He questioned Stephens's 1990 assessment of the men's physical capabilities. "They come out to my office and actually put backpack [water] pumps on, and they weigh 60 pounds," Hunt told the Phoenix Gazette. "We go up and down Adobe Mountain. I didn't hear any complaints, and they seemed to do it pretty well."

Marvin and Catherine Chacon et al. v. State of Arizona never went to trial. Neither did lawsuits filed against the state by Dude Fire survivors Geoff Hatch and Patrick Flippen. On March 10, 1993, after nearly three years of depositions, hearings and countless court filings, Judge Sherry Hutt dismissed the claims and granted a judgment in favor of the state of Arizona. In an earlier ruling, Hutt had said that it was the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service, not the state of Arizona, that controlled the fire-suppression efforts on the Dude Fire, and because of that, the case could only be decided at the federal level.

"The families went through hell," Stephens recalled. "I had parents here whose children were buried." Long before Judge Hutt's ruling, he had already filed claims on behalf of the families for federal lump-sum death benefits available through the Public Safety Officers' Benefits Program, which is administered by the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA). Introduced by Senators Ted Kennedy and Strom Thurmond to encourage careers in law enforcement and fire suppression, the statute had been signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1976.

By 1990, families of deceased officers were eligible for a one-time payment of $100,000. Stephens submitted death certificates, autopsy results, and other documents to the BJA for review. But after studying the claims, the BJA hearing officer denied benefits in November 1991, determining that the deceased inmates were not covered for the purpose of the program, which was to aid the families of career law-enforcement officers and firefighters.

Senators Kennedy and Thurmond may never have imagined prison inmates as public-safety officers, but in this case, the inmates seemed to be filling that role, just like the other firefighters who risked their lives battling the Dude Fire. The families of the Perryville men had few options. In the eyes of the federal government, the inmates were not considered to be legitimate firefighters, and the Perryville fire-suppression team was not viewed as a legally organized fire department.

Stephens filed an administrative appeal with the BJA, and at the hearing, he presented four key pieces of evidence in support of the claims. First was a letter from Arizona Assistant Attorney General Richard Albrecht, written in response to an inquiry from the BJA hearing, who wanted to know whether the state of Arizona believed that the inmates qualified for federal benefits. "We believe that the inmates were indeed serving a public agency in a public capacity," Albrecht wrote. "The inmates were authorized and trained to serve as firefighters on behalf of the State Land Department pursuant to an Intergovernmental Agreement with the Department of Corrections."

Next was a statement by the Perryville prison warden, Dale Copeland, who testified that all Arizona state prison inmates were required to perform some kind of work while incarcerated but that work on the fire crew was strictly voluntary. He went on to explain that inmates accepted into the prison's firefighting program were provided by the state with special training, clothing, and equipment needed to perform the job. Furthermore, Copeland explained, the men were working in a legally organized fire department.

For her part, Carol Springfield noted that on November 6, 1990, Arizona Governor Rose Mofford granted posthumous pardons to the inmates killed in Walk Moore Canyon. In the official pardon documents, Mofford wrote that each of the men, "without thought for his own life and safety, lost his life while fighting a forest fire in order to protect lives and property of the citizens of Arizona." With the men's civil rights restored by the pardons, Springfield hoped that the families could be allowed some kind of special consideration.

Finally, Sally Contreras, mother of Alex Contreras, testified that she was invited by the Federal Emergency Management Administration to attend a service at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial, at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland. At the memorial, her son and his fellow deceased Perryville firefighters are honored alongside thousands of other firefighters, including those who were killed on September 11, 2001.

Still, the BJA stood by its original determination, and on June 25, 1992, once again denied the death-benefit claims. With one more administrative appeal left, Stephens filed again. But the BJA was unbending in its interpretation of the bill, and the families' death benefits claims were denied for the third and final time on August 25, 1992.

"In my judgment, the feds failed them, the state failed them, and they got their own guard trapped in there and they died," Stephens said, when asked to reflect on the fire.

Without further administrative recourse, on October 14, 1992, Stephens filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, in Washington, D.C. In Marvin A. Chacon et al. v. The United States, Stephens argued on behalf of the families of the deceased firefighters that by ignoring statements made by Warden Copeland and Arizona Assistant Attorney General Albrecht, the decision by BJA was "arbitrary and capricious, and not supported by substantial evidence," and that it violated the agency's own requirement to "give substantial weight to the evidence and findings of facts presented by state, local, and federal administrative and investigative agencies."

Nevertheless, in an opinion dated January 27, 1994, Judge Diane Gilbert Weinstein granted the U.S. government's motion to dismiss the case, explaining that the inmates could not be considered to be serving a public agency, because according to the Arizona Department of Corrections, state prisoners are not considered to be employees of the state or the Department of Corrections. Nor could they be considered volunteers for the purpose of the law, Weinstein said, since the inmates were involuntarily committed and thus could not be properly considered to be volunteering their services to the state by serving on the fire crew. "While the choice to join the fire-suppression detail was termed 'voluntary,'" Weinstein wrote, "serving on some detail was mandatory" as a condition of each man's incarceration.

A year later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, in Washington, D.C., affirmed the lower court's decision.

Meanwhile, Janet Napolitano, then the U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Johns — a former wildland firefighter and a crew foreman from 1968 to 1971 in the Payson Ranger District, where the Dude Fire occurred — were preparing the federal government's defense against wrongful-death and personal-injury claims filed by the families of the deceased inmates, surviving inmates, Perryville crew representative Dave LaTour and by correctional officer Larry Terra.

Johns was sympathetic to the unique circumstances of the case, and he did what he could to help the Dude Fire survivors and the families of the deceased.

"During the litigation, I persuaded the District Court judge that the inmates and the crew rep, Dave LaTour, may be federal employees," he recalled in a meeting at his Phoenix office. "They were probably federal employees for the purpose of federal workers' compensation, but that decision ultimately rests with the Secretary of Labor, so the judge stayed the case, and papers were filed with the Department of Labor. The Department of Labor, at the first and second levels, decided that the inmates and the crew rep were independent contractors rather than federal employees." Johns's request to reopen and reconsider the claims was rejected.

"Actually, it was an incorrect decision," Johns said. "Because the ultimate test was whether or not the federal government supervised and controlled the details of the work. Of course, when a hand crew is fighting a fire, they're told, typically, where to build the line, how wide to make it, what to do, with considerable specificity."

Like the state case, the federal case never went to trial. On December 18, 1995, five and a half years after the Dude Fire, the claims of 24 plaintiffs, filed on behalf of 16 Perryville inmate firefighters, were settled in the amount of $1,182,500, according to Johns. Geoff Hatch, the firefighter who suffered third-degree burns in the fire, was awarded the largest settlement: $425,000 for physical and psychological injuries. Dave LaTour and his wife, Vicki, received $250,000. Of the deceased firefighters, Joseph Chacon's and Curtis Springfield's families were awarded the largest settlements: $80,000 each. As a condition of the settlement, the plaintiffs agreed not to pursue further litigation.

At the time, that was fine with Ron and Carol Springfield. "We were just tired of it," Carol recalled. "We wanted it over with." And finally it was, nearly six years after the loss of their only son.

Dude Fire survivor Steven Pender has a different perspective. "When I was on the crew, it was great. They pumped you up. You were somethin' special. 'That's the fire crew,' you know what I mean? You gotta be the elite to get on that." He continued, "Now, I feel like they hung us out to dry. I'm the one who has to live with this the rest of my life. I wake up every now and then. I still have nightmares. I wake up and smell smoke and ain't nothin' burnin'."

(More from The Big Roundtable: Miracle on Molokai)

In the years since the Dude Fire, the Tonto National Forest has regenerated. But the scars remain. Dead, bare trees mix with new growth. Their twisted branches reach above the canopy like long, skeletal fingers scratching at the sky. Their limbs are black, or silver and scaly, like charcoal. Trunks are scorched on the inside, hollowed by flames.

In Walk Moore Canyon, just off Control Road, two large wooden signs on metal posts flank the trailhead. One sign explains the events that took place here on June 26, 1990. The other illustrates the spread and scope of the Dude Fire. A red X on the map marks where the fire originated, and six white crosses pinpoint the fatalities.

In the canyon, alongside a dry creek, stand the first of six simple cross-shaped monuments, each about two feet high. The first bears the name J. Ellis, etched in white. Farther up the hill is Springfield's cross. Markers for Contreras and Bachman are next to each other, opposite those for Denney and Chacon. Small cairns, or rock piles, at the base of each of the crosses, serve as further reminders of the lives that were lost.

The deaths of the Perryville inmates had a profound impact on the wildland firefighting community. After the Dude Fire, Paul Gleason developed the Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, and Safety Zones (LCES) strategy, which simplified the firefighter's 10 Standard Fire Orders, and is now part of basic wildland firefighter training, and fire-shelter design and deployment training has improved.

The Dude Fire also inspired the first-ever U.S. Forest Service Staff Ride, a kind of case study modeled after those conducted by the U.S. military at important battle sites, bringing firefighters to scenes of past accidents or near-miss fires, where flames could have killed, but didn't, to better understand decisions made at the time and to improve future fire-suppression efforts.

In 1999, the Dude Fire Staff Ride brought Paul Gleason, J.P. Mattingly, and Paul Linse back to Walk Moore Canyon for the first time. Dave LaTour attended the inaugural ride as well, providing for participants a harrowing first-hand account of the burnover that entrapped him and his crew. In later years, Geoff Hatch, the former inmate firefighter badly burned in the Dude Fire, also attended a Staff Ride.

Today, inmate firefighting crews are active in at least 14 states, including Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming. To serve on a fire crew, an inmate must be classified as minimum security and be considered a low flight risk. Violent offenders, sex offenders and, of course, arsonists are disqualified. California runs the country's largest program, with about 196 fire crews and 4,300 juvenile and adult offenders participating in the program each year. State law guarantees workers' compensation benefits for California inmate firefighters injured or killed on the job. Arizona law, however, still offers no such protection.

Federal worker's compensation and Public Safety Officer's Benefits Program eligibility are decided on a case-by-case basis. But the odds of winning aren't good. In 2002, when the families of Utah State Prison inmates Michael Todd Bishop and Rodgie Braithwaite filed for federal Public Safety Officers' Benefits Program funds on behalf of the men's children, 12-year-old Natasha Whittaker and 5-year-old Raymond Braithwaite, benefits were denied, citing the Dude Fire claims as precedent. Soon after the men's deaths, the Utah Department of Corrections ended its inmate firefighting program. "It was too risky a job for our offenders," said Tracy Anderson, an administrator at the Utah DOC.

In Arizona, the DOC and the State Land Department, now called the State Forestry Division, continue their joint management of the state's inmate firefighter program, which saves state taxpayers more than $80 million a year, according to State Forester Scott Hunt. On the job, inmates earn 50 cents an hour for clearing brush and mopping up, or putting out small fires and quelling hot spots after a big fire has already burned; when assigned to a fire, their wages are doubled. After the Dude Fire, Hunt says, training standards were improved, and the Forestry Division now assigns full-time crew coordinators to the state's 15 inmate crews. But according to Arizona DOC spokesman Bill Lamoreaux, burial benefits for inmate firefighters are still unavailable.

Despite the lack of benefits, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Johns supports the state's program. "I think it's good for the inmates, and good for the firefighters to have that reserve available," he said. "For them to mobilize for huge wildfires would be difficult without [the inmates]."

For five years, Mike Martin worked as a coordinator and crew boss in charge of inmate firefighters from Arizona's Globe, Florence, and Perryville prison complexes. "Some of these kids come in really young and they don't have any life experience and they don't have any kind of direction," Martin said in a recent interview. "Well, now they have a sense of direction. It really helps them. They're seeing that what they're doing is making a difference. They're not this low person anymore. Now, someone wants to shake their hands or somebody's saying thank you or giving them a pat on the back. That's very uplifting to their spirit."

From time to time, Martin would bring his crews to Walk Moore Canyon to maintain the fatality site and pay their respects to those killed in the Dude Fire. "To everybody, it is kind of surreal," he said. "We could end up in the same boat. We could end up deployed in fire shelters or, you know, worse than that, dying."


This story originally appeared at The Big Roundtable. Writers at The Big Roundtable depend on your generosity. All donations, minus a 10 percent commission to The Big Roundtable and PayPal's nominal fee, go to the author. Please donate.

 

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