The Heat Is Online

Arizona Blaze Covers nearly 20,000 Acres

Arizona wildfire now covers 19,500 acres

Blaze roars through new timber, brush, June 24, 2003

TUCSON, Arizona (CNN) -- Despite the work of more than 900 fire personnel, a wildfire northeast of Tucson has roared through new mountain timber and desert brush, increasing its size dramatically, a fire official said.

From Monday afternoon into Monday evening, the Aspen fire grew from 12,400 acres to 19,500 acres, according to Dave Root, a spokesman for the National Incident Management Team, an increase of 57 percent. He said the blaze is 15 percent contained. (Satellite image)

Earlier in the day, fire officials told reporters that firefighting efforts were in a critical stage.

"We anticipate very, very tough conditions on the hill," said Jeff Whitney, deputy incident commander for the National Incident Management Team, citing low humidity, a temperature near 100 and gusts of wind predicted to reach 35 mph at the fire, which is centered near Mount Lemmon, 17 miles northeast of Tucson.

Tuesday's forecast again calls for highs near 100 with low humidity.

Feeding off the area's dry timber and underbrush, the Aspen fire has devastated at least three mountain resort communities since it was reported June 17. More than 900 firefighters from 10 Western states have joined the efforts to choke it, which have cost an estimated $2.5 million so far.

Federal emergency management teams Sunday began initial assessments of the damage. The fire's intense, erratic nature has prevented an accurate assessment of even the number of structures destroyed, but fire officials have said well over 200 homes and businesses have been lost.

Concerns on Sunday that a radio communications center and an observatory in the fire's predicted path were threatened have eased, Whitney said. "We feel very good, at this point, that the major threat has passed for the developments on the west end of Radio Ridge."

Nevertheless, two towers atop Radio Ridge -- a key communications site for the area -- have been damaged.

Heavy smoke has shielded the blazes from the sun, cooling them, and hills have weakened the winds, developments that have slowed the fire's march, Whitney said.

Gusts on Sunday eased, so that four heavy helicopters, two to four air tankers and three medium-sized planes were able to drop slurry on the blazes, he said.

Still, the fire -- which Whitney called the "number-one priority nationally" -- is creeping northward at a pace of 2 miles per day, he said.

The Aspen fire started last Tuesday on the southern slopes of the 9,157-foot Mount Lemmon and roared through Summerhaven -- a vacation community with about 100 permanent residents plus numerous part-timers and tourists -- and nearby Loma Linda on Thursday. It then swept over the top of the mountain and headed down the other side toward Lower Soldier Camp, pushed by winds that had decreased in strength only slightly.

Nine homes in Lower Soldier Camp and an estimated 200 in Summerhaven and Loma Linda have been destroyed, officials said. Businesses and other structures have also been destroyed.

The effort to contain the fire was getting a boost from the desolate terrain of two of last year's fires: the 2,400-acre Oracle Hill fire on the north and the 30,000-plus-acre Bullock fire on the east side.

A fire crew fills a fire truck with water in Summerhaven, Arizona, on Monday.

The fire lines that remain from those fires mean that firefighters need to build just three to five miles of new fire lines for this year's blaze, Whitney said.

More than 1,000 homes and a number of children's camps have been evacuated since the fire began. Residents will not likely be able to return to their homes for at least a week, Whitney said.

Efforts to determine whether the Aspen fire was ignited by a lightning strike or a person have been futile, since investigators are unable to approach the area where it is believed to have started, he said.

Arizona has also been plagued by several other fires, including the Picture fire -- which had swelled to more than 11,000 acres by Monday morning, half of it contained -- in Tonto National Forest northeast of Phoenix. Firefighters said they expected to fully contain Picture by Thursday.

Eleven large wildfires were burning Monday morning in Arizona, New Mexico and Alaska -- five each in the two Southwestern states and one in Alaska -- as seasonal dry weather sparked the beginning of another summer of wildfires.