Wildfire hits homes in Arizona

Friday, June 20, 2003

TUCSON, Ariz. -- A wildfire driven by winds up to 60 mph roared through a southern Arizona mountain community Thursday, burning 200 to 250 homes, a fire official said.

It took less than an hour for the fire to tear through an area of Summerhaven with about 500 homes, burning some and sparing others, said Larry Humphrey, commander of the team directing the fight against the fire.

Firefighters had hoped to protect the homes on Mount Lemmon north of Tucson by making a stand along a trail about a mile away, but had to pull back when the intense blaze crossed the path, Humphrey said.

The fire had forced the evacuation of Summerhaven, a community with hundreds of vacation homes and about 100 year-round residents, shortly after it started Tuesday.

Humphrey said the fire, which had been reported at about 465 acres early Thursday, had grown to cover thousands of acres by late afternoon, and could threaten radio transmitters and a radar facility on the mountain.

The blaze consumed pine trees ravaged by years of drought and an infestation of tree-killing bark beetles. It was one of several wildfires throughout Arizona, where fire officials are braced for another busy year after seeing a record 630,000 acres burned in 2002.

Humphrey said crews planned to fight structure fires through the night. They were hampered by exploding propane tanks and downed power lines, he said.

"We're going to continue to go in there ... and protect the ones that we can and save the ones that we can," Humphrey said. "And then we're going to go back to the drawing board to see what we can do to put this fire to sleep."

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

About 400 people were fighting the fire, assisted by air tankers and helicopters. But with high winds and low humidity expected to hinder their efforts in coming days, "there's not a thing happening that's on our side," Humphrey said.

"This fire is burning very hot, very intense," said Chadeen Palmer, a spokeswoman for the team directing the firefighting efforts.

Palmer said the wildfire resembled last year's Rodeo-Chediski fire, the worst in Arizona history. That eastern Arizona blaze covered 469,000 acres, destroyed 491 buildings and forced the evacuation of about 30,000 people.

Summerhaven has an estimated 700 homes and cabins and a handful of businesses. Its population swells during weekends and summers as visitors drive up 9,157-foot Mount Lemmon to escape the desert heat.

Gov. Janet Napolitano declared a state of emergency Thursday to free up money for firefighting efforts. She said she plans to seek a similar declaration from the federal government to bring in aid that would include low-interest loans to rebuild homes.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: