Wildfires are part of life in Arizona and here are some of the worst
Wildfires in Arizona have destroyed thousands of homes, claimed dozens of lives and ravaged millions of acres of beautiful landscape through the years.
Each year, the threat from fire arrives in mid-May and lingers through mid-July after the moist monsoon takes shape.
Here are some of the most destructive fires in Arizona’s history.
June 1990. 24,174 acres burned, six fatalities and 63 structures destroyed.
While Phoenix was baking in all-time record heat, the Dude Fire broke out 10 miles northeast of Payson and spread quickly. On June 26, a dry thunderstorm erupted, sending gusty winds that fanned flames and trapped a fire crew. Six firefighters died in the inferno that burned just below the Mogollon Rim. This tragic incident inspired the LCES system firefighters use today. It stands for Lookouts, Communication, Escape Routes and Safety Zone, a minimum safety standard for wildland firefighting.
June 2002. 462,000 acres burned, 426 structures destroyed.
This fire started as two fires, the Rodeo Fire and the Chediski Fire, that eventually merged into one in June of 2002. Thought of as one of the state’s worst natural disasters, it forced 30,000 people to evacuate as the fire chewed through hundreds of homes in Heber-Overgaard, Pinedale and other Rim communities. The fire was so large at one point flames shot up 300 feet in the air, taller than many buildings in downtown Phoenix. All told the blaze burned an area larger than Phoenix and Scottsdale combined. Fire investigators later learned the Rodeo fire was started by a wildland firefighter hoping he would get work after starting the blaze. The Chediski fire was started by a stranded motorist hoping to signal a news helicopter that was heading to cover the Rodeo fire.
Cave Creek Complex Fire
June 2005. 248,310 acres burned. 11 structures destroyed.
This fire was started, like most of Arizona’s worst fires, in June. A bolt of lighting sparked the flames that eventually led to Arizona’s third largest wildfire. The fire was designated a ‘complex’ fire because it was actually several fires close to each other crews were trying to fight. The fire burned 11 homes in Camp Creek and ended up being one of the largest fires in modern history to burn in the Sonoran Desert. The Cave Creek Complex Fire damaged ‘The Grand One’, the largest saguaro ever recorded. Two years after the fire, the mighty 50-foot saguaro collapsed.
The Wallow Fire
May-July 2011. 539,000 acres burned. 36 structures destroyed.
This was a massive fire. After it started in late May near Alpine in the White Mountains, the fire burned for nearly 40 days. In about five weeks, it burned more than half a million acres, which according to the forest service, was close to the same acreage burned on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests in all of the 25 years before that! Two campers who did not extinguish their campfire were blamed for starting the Wallow Fire and were eventually prosecuted. The Wallow Fire is the largest fire in Arizona’s history. The plume of smoke was so big, southwest winds blew it into New Mexico and shrouded cities like Albuquerque in a thick haze for weeks. Satellite images showed smoke from the Wallow Fire blew as far away as the Great Lakes, a good 1,500 hundred miles away.
Yarnell Hill Fire
June 28, 2013. 8,400 acres burned. 19 firefighters killed.
In late June, lightning sparked a fire that eventually led to the deadliest fire ever to impact Arizona firefighters. Nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed in the blaze. On June 28, the fire started near Yarnell, 80 miles northwest of Phoenix. The wind-driven fire grew in the days to follow, eventually burning 8,400 acres and destroying more than 120 homes. The Granite Mountain Hotshots, a group of elite firefighters, had been fighting the fire’s front lines. Wind gusts from nearby thunderstorms made for an especially dangerous situation. Flames overran the group and they were killed after attempting to deploy their fire shelters. In 2016, a park opened to honor the crew that was killed.