- The Washington Times - Monday, June 23, 2003

SUMMERHAVEN, Ariz. (AP) — The uncontrolled wildfire that destroyed more than 250 homes in this mountaintop community followed a course yesterday that would take it into an area where terrain and lighter vegetation would make it easier to fight, fire officials said.

However, crews didn’t know how soon they would be able to attack the fire in that area, and the blaze’s growth in other forested areas still was creating difficulties.

“This fire’s going to be here for a while and it’s going to be very large,” said Jeff Whitney, deputy commander of the team battling the fire.

The fire had burned across more than 8,800 acres in the mountains northeast of Tucson and was about 5 percent contained yesterday. Firefighters expect it will take several weeks to get it under total control.

The blaze was fueled by pine forest ravaged by years of drought and a beetle infestation and driven by winds gusting to 60 mph as it roared through Summerhaven on Thursday. The flames soon spread across the top of 9,157-foot Mount Lemmon and headed down the north slope.

Firefighters focused their efforts yesterday on an area around a University of Arizona observatory and a group of radio and television towers, and a ridge where they hoped to stop the fire before it advanced on scattered homes.

Three towers already have been lost.

Mr. Whitney said the fire had charred a half-circle around the observatory. Crews planned to light backfires by today to close the circle, depriving the fire of the fuel it would need to move into the observatory complex.

Crews also planned back burns to clear vegetation along the ridge, where they were making a stand between the flames and homes southeast of Summerhaven.

Mr. Whitney said officials evacuated a camp, about three miles from the fire’s northern edge, that had been scheduled to host 250 people beginning yesterday.

The cause of the fire, which began Tuesday, remains under investigation. Investigators were expected to survey the fire’s starting point today.

The community of Summerhaven has about 100 year-round residents, but its population grows during the summer and weekends as Tucson residents drive up to the mountains to escape the desert heat.

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