- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 22, 2003

PHOENIX (AP) — The fire struck in the worst possible place: close to town, in difficult terrain and in a forest suffering from years of drought and the ravages of tree-killing bark beetles.

Throw hot, dry weather and gusting wind into the mix, and a hamlet in the pines was doomed.

An estimated 250 homes were destroyed in Summerhaven, an area of several hundred cabins and second homes atop a mountain just outside Tucson, Ariz., and firefighters sweated to save what remained.

Many communities face a similar threat.

“If you went throughout the West, there are well over 1,000 communities in similar circumstances,” said Wally Covington, director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University.

One such place is Prescott, Ariz., a booming, mile-high city of 34,000 about 90 miles north of Phoenix. What makes Prescott a magnet for retirees and others is what makes it vulnerable: homes built on the surrounding forested hillsides.

As Prescott Mayor Rowle Simmons watched coverage of the Summerhaven fire, he got an uneasy feeling. “That could have been us,” he said.

Prescott survived a close call last year when firefighters were able to beat down a fast-moving fire that broke out just outside town. Still, 1,300 acres of forest and six homes burned.

Since then, workers have thinned some areas of the forest around Prescott, but Mr. Simmons said there weren’t nearly enough people or dollars to do what was needed, especially removing the large number of trees killed by bark beetles.

Bark beetles have exacerbated the fire danger all over the West and South, laying waste to trees on some 15 million acres. In Arizona alone, the insects have killed about 2.5 million ponderosa pines and at least 4 million pinyon pines during the past year.

In addition to the insect damage, much of the country endured drought last summer as wildfires burned more than 7 million acres. Those blazes included the Rodeo-Chediski fire, the largest in Arizona history, which blackened 469,000 acres, destroyed 491 buildings and forced the evacuation of 30,000 people.

Experts say this fire season shouldn’t be as bad as the one last year, when fires already had begun in the Southwest by April. Still, some areas of the West will face a tough fire season until rain brings relief, said Rick Ochoa, national fire weather program manager for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

In Arizona, that relief comes in the form of summer monsoon thunderstorms as moisture rolls in from the gulfs of California and Mexico. The season usually lasts from July until September.

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