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Wildfire Disaster In Arizona

Smoke from the Aspen Fire shrouds a section of Mount Lemmon in Summerhaven, Ariz., in this aerial photo taken Friday, June 20, 2003. Firefighters knew when they saw the flames they had little chance of stopping the wildfire before it swept through the mountaintop resort, destroying more than 200 homes, a top fire official said Friday. (AP Photo/Matt York)
AP
With summer officially arriving on Saturday, the Western wildfire season is already off and running in Arizona.

A blaze that hit outside Tucson is now the nation's number-one fire priority, reports CBS News Correspondent Sandra Hughes. Hundreds of firefighters are trying to get control of the blaze, but it's nowhere near containment yet.

The fire has already destroyed 250 homes and threatens the same number in the vacation town of Summerhaven.

What remains won't be known for days or weeks when the barricades come down and the residents can go home.

Charles Hanks, evacuated to a hotel with his wife, doesn't expect to find much of his home when he returns.

"It's going to be charcoal," he says.

Others try to remain hopeful despite the odds.

"You walk out crossing your fingers. You hope you're skipped over," says evacuee Jill Buckingham.

Hanks believes this all could have been avoided, because officials knew the drought-parched forest was a tinderbox.

"I don't know why the forest service did not stop people from coming up here to camp and go hiking," he says.

But officials say it's still too early to say what started this fire. At least so far there have been no injuries.

The fire started Tuesday in the worst possible place, said Larry Humphrey, commander of the fire team battling the blaze on Mount Lemmon.

``We had predicted if we had a fire in the area that we would probably lose Summerhaven,'' he said. ``So unfortunately our predictions were pretty good.''

Winds up to 60 mph drove the fire through dry pine country and up the streets of Summerhaven in about an hour Thursday, reducing some homes to smoking rubble while leaving others untouched.

On Friday, firefighters moved through the community's charred streets, digging lines to protect what was left of Summerhaven — which had an estimated 700 homes and cabins and a handful of businesses before the blaze — and to defend outlying homes and transmitter towers.

Humphrey said he expects the fire, which grew from an estimated 465 acres Thursday to about 3,200 acres early Friday, to eventually burn tens of thousands of acres because there is no good place to stop it.

"We had predicted if we had a fire in the area that we would probably lose Summerhaven," he said. "So unfortunately our predictions were pretty good."

Firefighters expected to continue to be hindered by the weather, with forecasts calling for wind gusts of up to 35 mph and continued dry conditions.

Just a year ago firefighters in Arizona battled one of the biggest blazes in American history: the half-million acre Rodeo-Chedeski fire.

By comparison, this fire season is off to very slow start, reports CBS News Correspondent Vince Gonzales.

"It hasn't been much of a fire season, but the western U.S. is primed to burn this summer," says Neil Hitchcock of the National Fire Information Council.

The major cause for concern is a drought, which is in its fifth year in some parts of the West. The federal government says it's the most extensive dry spell since the dustbowl days of the 1930s.

Drought conditions are worst in states along the spine of the Rocky Mountains.

But much of the Western half of the country could see above normal fire activity before the season ends.

"Certainly there's a lot that can happen between now and Thanksgiving. California in particular is very dry," says Hitchock.

Making conditions even worse is a beetle infestation that's killed hundreds of thousands of acres of trees.

"The threat of fire is just astronomical compared to what it was and what it is now," says the U.S. Forest Service's Gene Zimmerman.