Dozens of firefighters from Tucson and South Tucson fought a blaze late Friday night and into Saturday morning that severely damaged Micha’s Restaurant.

South Tucson fire crews were sent to the South-side restaurant at about 10 p.m. after a fire alarm inside the restaurant sounded. Upon arrival, firefighters noticed light smoke coming from the top of the building, said Capt. Andy Luna, a South Tucson firefighter.

When firefighters searched the interior, the scene worsened.

“We went to the kitchen and found a lot more smoke and actual fire,” Luna said, adding that it appears the fire originated in the kitchen area of the restaurant at 2908 S. Fourth Ave. An investigation into the cause of the fire is ongoing, he said.

Smoke from the fire spread throughout much of the restaurant and caused an undetermined amount of damage. At least one section of the restaurant’s roof collapsed, Luna said.

“We happened to take a peek inside and we looked up and there was no roof. You could see the stars and the sky. There was nothing there,” he said.

A Tucson Fire Department spokesman said the agency responded with 30 firefighters and three ladder trucks after a request for assistance from the South Tucson Fire Department.

The fire apparently broke out as many of the restaurants lining South Fourth were closing. Employees and area residents gathered nearby as the fire tore through the restaurant, which has anchored the avenue since 1976.

“It made my stomach turn,” said Edgar Gonzalez, who runs Guillermo’s Double L Restaurant at 1830 S. Fourth Ave. for his uncle. “We were born and raised in the restaurant business. To see all these places shining for all these years and to see this happen is heartbreaking for all of us.”

The fire comes at a controversial time for South Tucson. The 1-square-mile city recently reduced the number of firefighters on its fire engine from four to three, citing budget shortfalls. The move prompted 16 firefighters in the department to resign earlier this year.

After a recall election, several new members of the South Tucson City Council took office just this month. New Mayor Roberto Teso said at the council’s April 2 meeting that he wanted to comb through the city’s budget to find a way to have four firefighters on the engine for every call.

For more than 40 years, Micha’s has been the welcome mat at the south end of Fourth Avenue, the first Mexican restaurant on a stretch of road known for having some of Tucson’s oldest Mexican restaurants. The Mariscal family opened the restaurant in 1976 and it quickly became a lunchtime hot spot, a reputation that has held steady through the decades.

The fire dominated conversations at restaurants along South Fourth Avenue on Saturday afternoon. Many recalled their memories of dining there and debated the restaurant’s place in South Tucson’s Mexican restaurant community. Mostly, they expressed shock and sadness.

“We didn’t expect this,” said Elizabeth Montezerz, who has tended bar and waitressed at Crossroads, 2602 S. Fourth Ave., for three years. “I am shocked. It has been here for so long.”

Gonzalez said he initially thought the fire was at the building next door to Micha’s. But when he went down the avenue, he saw the flames shooting out of the restaurant.

“It was horrible,” he said. “You could see the shocked expressions on everyone’s face.

“I used to pass by Micha’s all the time. It’s the first restaurant on the avenue and it’s always busy. I’m hoping they rebuild it.”

Contact Star reporter Shaq Davis at 573-4218 or sdavis@tucson.com. On Twitter: @ShaqDavis1