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Fire Victims Vow to Rebuild

Arizona's governor pledges to help residents of a scorched mountain hamlet, as firefighters get more aggressive with the persistent flames.

June 22, 2003|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

TUCSON — Even as firefighters admitted frustration with the untamed blaze spewing smoke from Mt. Lemmon, residents of Summerhaven, the mountain's burned-out hamlet, were planning for their return.

The fire has destroyed more than 250 homes and cabins. At least 7,500 acres of woodland are charred, and officials said Saturday that it could be three weeks before firefighters contain the wind-driven walls of flame.

With at least half of Summerhaven's buildings reduced to ash, community leaders pleaded for help from Gov. Janet Napolitano, who met with them at a high school that has been transformed into a command post at the mountain's base.

At a news briefing after the meeting, the governor praised residents' spirit. "They're Arizonans," she said. "They're already talking about rebuilding, and I said we would do everything we can to help them."

Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will assess the devastation at Summerhaven today, the governor said. She has already declared a disaster area, a step toward obtaining federal aid.

Touring the mountain by helicopter, Napolitano said she was stunned by the smoldering bleakness. She said she didn't have words to describe the feeling of seeing flames taller than the radio towers lining the ridge.

Summerhaven, 30 miles from Tucson, was more than a spot for investment in vacation real estate, even for those who only visited occasionally.

On Saturday, Tucson's Arizona Daily Star ran a page of letters from readers about their Mt. Lemmon memories. Two of the writers recalled their first kiss. Others cherished memories of making snow angels in the winter and idling away long summer afternoons with pine-cone fights and fishing.

For sisters Wendy Hunter and Pam Reitz-Bowman, the mountain was a place of strong tradition. Their father built their family cabin himself 25 years ago, partly with trees that fell on the property. When the three children became adults, they flocked to the cabin with their kids on summer weekends. Their participation in Summerhaven's July 4th parade was so enthusiastic that both women insisted in divorce decrees on custody of their children for the holiday.

Bob Zimmerman has lived in Summerhaven most of his life. His dad, Tony Zimmerman, was something of a pioneer there, dishing out chicken dinners at an inn built in 1912. The tiny local elementary school, with an enrollment as low as six depending on the season, bears the name of the elder Zimmerman, a teacher in Arizona for 30 years.

Head of Mt. Lemmon's fire board, the younger Zimmerman went up on the mountain with a fire crew to see what was left of the house he and his family have occupied since the early 1970s.

"We've got a daunting task ahead of us," he said.

Another 10 or 20 homes were burned Friday night but others were saved by firefighters cutting away nearby brush and soaking down structures. Two radio towers were destroyed and others were at risk. An observatory run by the University of Arizona also was getting preventive attention from some of the 700 firefighters on the mountain.

Winds were forecast as somewhat weaker than the 60-mph gusts that fanned flames in the early days of the fire, but Larry Humphrey, the Bureau of Land Management official directing the firefighting effort, said the weather still posed a problem.

"If the wind is over 20 mph, it doesn't make a heck of a lot of difference," he said.

Since the fire started Tuesday, firefighters have had their hands full trying to save what structures they could, Humphrey said. But Saturday they started a more aggressive approach, targeting spots where they could surround the fire and, by keeping it from additional fuel, starve it to death. By nightfall, they reported that the fire was 5% contained.

Humphrey said it would be slow going because of the difficult terrain and the heat. And, he said, flames continue to lick at Summerhaven.

Donnie Tapp and his wife lost an A-frame cottage that had been in her family for 21 years, but he kept busy collecting relief supplies for the displaced.

"Everyone's crying," he said. "You can put that fire out with all the tears in Tucson."

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