Arizonans Return To Charred Homes

Members of the Silver City Hotshots walk past burning bushes and trees Wednesday, July 16, 2003, during a burn-out operation that was started to deny additional fuel to the southwest side of the Kinishba Fire, near Whiteriver, Ariz. AP

A month after a wildfire drove them off their vacation hamlet on Mount Lemmon, people who lost homes to the blaze — and the lucky ones who didn't — were finally allowed to return.

Authorities were letting property owners return Thursday to view the aftermath of the 84,750-acre fire, started June 17 by humans.

Residents whose homes were spared will be free to stay as long as they want. No decision had been made on when the general public will be allowed up the mountain.

The fire broke out on the mountain overlooking Tucson, forcing property owners to flee the vacation hamlet of Summerhaven and surrounding subdivisions. Two days later, wind-fed flames devoured a pine forest ravaged by years of drought and a tree-killing beetle infestation and burst into the community.

A total of 322 homes and cabins, seven businesses and four other buildings were lost during the initial surge on June 19 and another run earlier this month.

The fire also forced the brief evacuation this month of dozens of homes in an exclusive enclave in Ventana Canyon in the foothills of the towering Santa Catalina Mountains. It was contained Tuesday.

An 18,000-acre blaze on Arizona's Fort Apache Indian Reservation continued to burn, however. Fire crews say they're praying for the remnants of Hurricane Claudette to bring some rain. The blaze has chased as many as 5,000 people from their homes. It's also threatening a summer resort mountain community.

In Colorado, dry conditions Wednesday helped several lightning-caused fires to spread quickly in the nation's largest archaeological preserve, but none of the ruins appeared threatened.

Two fires inside Mesa Verde National Park and one just outside the park were contained Wednesday afternoon. Two other fires have merged on the park boundary.

Fire information officer Sue Johnson-Erner said the fires burned a total of about 2,100 acres by late Wednesday.

The fires started Tuesday in the southeastern part of the park as a tour group visited the nearby Balcony House, one of the premier ruins. The park was evacuated and tourists poured into nearby Cortez and Durango.

"There was this big boom of thunder and somebody said it hit," said Jane Murphy of Cranston, R.I., who was on the tour when the thunderstorm broke out. "Immediately, the flame shot up. It started as one thin, orange column and then it got wider and wider, and smokier and smokier."

The park is home to 25,000 archaeological sites left by the ancestral Pueblo Indians, a civilization that vanished more than 700 years ago. Its cliff dwellings date to the 1200s and pit houses date to the 500s.

In 2000, two wildfires burned more than a third of the park's 52,000 acres. A fire last year burned more than 2,600 acres in the park.

Elsewhere in the West:

  • In northern Washington, seven homes were destroyed in Okanogan by a wildfire Wednesday. The 150-acre fire was contained by evening.

  • In Southern California, a wildfire burned across 5,000 acres of steep, hilly brush along the San Diego-Riverside county line, prompting the evacuation of a Boy Scout camp. No structures were damaged and no injuries were reported. About 600 campers were escorted out as a precaution.

  • A wildfire in Montana forced the evacuation of about 150 rural homes and cabins near the town of Cascade on Wednesday. Fire managers said the blaze grew rapidly to 150 acres during the morning.

  • In Wyoming, officials have reopened the Snake River to recreational use. It had been shut off for three days because of a wildfire. Another fire is menacing a mountain subdivision in southeast Wyoming.
    • Lauren Johnston

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