By Associated Press - Friday, April 24, 2015

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) - The unsolved arson fire that tore through Old Tucson Movie Studios 20 years ago flickers on in the minds of firefighters.

A group of Drexel Heights Fire District veterans told the Arizona Daily Star of Tucson ( about the night of the “career fire” that has been burned into their memories.

Two decades later, authorities still don’t know who set the blaze that broke out just before 7 one evening. It destroyed nearly 40 buildings and caused about $10 million in damage, but no one was seriously hurt.

The fire began in a building that served as a saloon setting and wind spread the fire through the dry, wooden buildings on the 360-acre park at the western edge of the Tucson Mountains.

Hugh McCrystal, now 60, remembers working on the fire for about eight hours and returning to monitor hot spots. That monitoring went on for days while investigators dug through the rubble.

“One fire like that is plenty,” he said.

Firefighters say their efforts to put out the flames were hampered by a lack of water. The park had no fire hydrants and no firefighting system. Its water pumps were faulty and the water hoses weren’t long enough to reach some of the fires.

On top of that, the main water tank was not accessible because firefighters feared the propane tanks next to it would explode.

“The lack of water was a big problem,” said Capt. Steve Medina. He began working on the water supply, setting up a relay operation to fill tanks with water with a hydrant near Tucson Estates.

Medina remembers being off duty when he noticed the cloud of black smoke rising. He had to navigate roads clogged with traffic to get to the scene, because so many drivers wanted to catch a glimpse of the fire.

One of the first responders says staff members were desperately in need of reinforcement as they began to fight the blaze.

Drexel Heights Capt. Scott Bird, now 53, said he was “calling in the whole county and city to help,” including personnel from the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

“One thing that still stands out is seeing buildings destroyed from just radiant heat from the fire,” said Bird, who tried to save buildings from roaring flames that sent embers flying through the park.

“To see that much fire out there, and how fast it moved was a devastating event. I hope I never have a fire that big again,” he said.

Retired Drexel Heights Division Chief Gary Bynum said he was battling the blaze with four others near the propane tanks. Fire surrounded them and they had no safe way out when a major propane tank began to vent.

“We hunkered down and waited,” he remembered. “We were using a 750-gallon tank of water sparingly to make it last.”

They were relieved hours later by the Tucson Fire Department.

“It was a tinderbox,” said Bynum. “The only building that had sprinklers was the sound stage, but sprinklers are not effective when the fire starts on the outside.”


Information from: Arizona Daily Star,

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