Firefighters try to protect mountaintop community

Saturday, June 21, 2003

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Firefighters moved through the charred, smoky streets of a mountaintop resort Friday to protect what was left of a community decimated by a raging wildfire that reduced 250 homes to smoking rubble.

Heavy smoke hid the Summerhaven hamlet from observers flying overhead Friday, but parted occasionally to reveal a moonscape of blackened trees stripped of their branches. A cul-de-sac with homes burned to their foundations was visible from above.

A top fire official said Friday that firefighters knew when they saw the flames that they had little chance of stopping them. Winds up to 60 mph drove the fire through dry pine country and up the streets of Summerhaven in about an hour Thursday. Fire crews are bracing for more destruction in Summerhaven with forecasts calling for strong winds and dry conditions.

Up to 1,000 firefighters are expected to be battling the fire within a few days.

Air tankers were kept on the ground Friday afternoon because of high winds.

Later in the day, Humphrey said the fire had burned across a ridge holding several communications transmitter towers, but it was unclear whether they had been damaged.

Humphrey said he expects the fire, which grew from an estimated 465 acres Thursday to about 3,200 acres early Friday, to eventually burn tens of thousands of acres because there is no good place to stop it.

Crews were clearing vegetation from around a nearby observatory Friday, and were prepared to burn around the area if the fire approached.

The fire started Tuesday in the worst possible place -- where the wind would take it right into town. Humphrey said it also struck at a time when the area was at its driest.

"We had predicted if we had a fire in the area that we would probably lose Summerhaven," he said. "So unfortunately our predictions were pretty good."

Firefighters had tried to protect the homes along a trail about a mile away, but had to pull back when the intense blaze leaped the path.

"The problem is this is extremely difficult country with extremely heavy fuels, and without rain on this and with the way the winds and humidity are, they never stood a chance," Humphrey said.

The cause was under investigation.

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

Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll, whose district includes Mount Lemmon, said a trip up the mountain early Friday showed him "probably three or four foundations for every cabin left."

Some luxury homes were burned to the ground, but their gates, hedges and mailboxes were untouched, Carroll said.

A convertible also stood untouched near a devastated house.

"Not a scratch, not a cinder," Carroll said. "Didn't even need a paint job. Doesn't even need a car wash at this point. ... Explain that one to me."

Summerhaven had been what the name implies: a cool oasis in the pines, 6,000 feet above and a world away from this desert city.

For hundreds of thousands below, it was a treasured escape from triple-digit heat in the summer and a place to throw snowballs or ski in the winter. For the 100 or so who call it home year-round, it's a tight-knit community with a rich history and, even after a devastating wildfire, a future. It had an estimated 700 homes and cabins and a handful of businesses before the blaze.

Residents and owners of second homes who were forced to evacuate Tuesday still waited Friday in Tucson, about 20 miles to the south.

Jennifer and Bill Richardson said they saw their cabin, which they recently remodeled, go up in flames on television. They were downhill when the evacuation order came and couldn't retrieve any belongings, though a neighbor rescued their dog.

"We're not sad," Jennifer Richardson said. "We had our heads around the fact that this could happen any day."

"It's a resilient bunch. We'll bounce back," said Brian Ashby, who owns a cabin near the Alpine Lodge, which burned. He commutes from Tucson in the winter to work as an instructor at Mount Lemmon Ski Valley, the nation's southernmost ski area.

"We're going to go up there and start to dig out and start over again," said summer resident Lea Patterson.

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