Aspen Fire: From calm to crazy in minutes

2003-08-17T00:00:00Z 2013-05-08T17:56:23Z Aspen Fire: From calm to crazy in minutesArizona Daily Star staff Arizona Daily Star
August 17, 2003 12:00 am  • 

Originally published in August 2003 under the headline "It was hell on earth," as part of the Star's special section "Smoke, Flames & Ash":

The story of the Aspen Fire is a monthlong saga, but its climax comes on the third day, with the destruction of Summerhaven, shortly after 1 p.m. on June 19, 2003.

About four hours later, crews of firefighters venture back to save what the fire has not already taken.

In what remains of Summerhaven, the Aspen Fire — despite its singular name and the single smoke plume seen from Tucson — is not one but thousands of blazing, roaring fires.

You can’t see through the smoke or hear a warning yell through the din.

Yellow helmets and red trucks vanish 15 feet away. Voices fade in the cacophony — the sizzle of a tree’s moisture being torched into steam, the crackle and rush of a family’s home and belongings being reduced to carbon, the menacing hiss and rush of propane gas meeting flame.

There are many things wrong with the picture you can see:

This mailbox post is a puddle of aluminum. That car has no tires. The power line hangs only 2 feet off the ground. Snow (ash) is falling in summer. The roof of the house lies atop its foundation. The store’s sign has no store behind it. Chimneys abound, but they’ve lost their homes.

The overriding aroma is wood smoke, unpleasant in its immensity and punctuated with the acrid scents of burning plastic and rubber and things more ghastly.

The wind is still whipping flames through the village. Branches burn overhead and occasionally drop. Burning roots have hollowed out fiery traps beneath seemingly solid ground. Propane tanks are venting into the flame.

“Hear that? Sounds kind of like a little A-10 (fighter jet)? That’s a good sound,” says Capt. Tom Nix of the Avra Valley Fire Department. “That means it’s venting. It’s blowing off the gas until the pressure drops. It’ll do that three or four times and then be out of fuel, and we won’t have to worry about it, so that’s a sound you like to hear.”

When you don’t hear it, when the tanks don’t vent, they simply explode.

Firefighters are given about four hours on this first day to save what hasn’t burned. Larry Humphrey, who commands them, will later say they shouldn’t have been there.

“They actually went back a little early,” Humphrey said. “You want to wait until the propane tanks stop exploding. It was hell on earth down there.”

Many of the 100 firefighters are from urban areas, accustomed to battling every blaze and saving every home.

Dave La Tour of Northwest Fire/Rescue District gives a grim order before his crew drives in: Target only homes that can be saved in 10 to 15 minutes. Waste your time on a house that is already burning and you’ll miss the chance to save several more.

La Tour, driving through the village, calls off an attempt to save a house on Carter Canyon Road. Flames are shooting through the attic of its neighbor, and a propane tank sits nearby. Three minutes later, both houses are in flames.

“That’s why you have to move on. Some of these houses are a lost cause even if they’re not on fire yet,” La Tour says.

Bill Hurley is a blur on the mountain, trotting up steps to homes, chucking fire hose off the top of his truck, shouting orders to his crew from the Corona de Tucson Fire District.

He tosses more than 50 pieces of firewood from behind a home on Middle Sabino Road, then radios La Tour for permission to go to work. He raises both fists and shouts to his crew, “Yeah, we’re gonna save this house.”

It may seem a hollow victory, says Mount Lemmon firefighter Paul Peevey.

“You’ve got hundreds of homes lost and yet you’re feeling good about saving one house, and that’s something a lot of people don’t understand. But saving even just one house is a big accomplishment. You’re saving a family’s home and everything inside of it, and the life they have inside that home.”

Peevey knows this truth firsthand. His home burned today. “That wasn’t my cabin, I was leasing it. But it’s gone and everything I had in it is gone.”

The fires continue to burn and the crews continue to work until 9 p.m. when a 500-gallon propane tank explodes and impales itself into the side of a house. Everybody is ordered out till morning.

Tuesday, June 17

Two days earlier, on the day this fire begins, Mount Lemmon and its forested environs atop the Santa Catalina Mountain range are primed to burn. The forest is thick with trees, its floor littered with leaves, pine cones, pine needles, twigs and fallen, dead trees.

Drought has persisted for years. Some trees, invaded by bark beetles, are dead where they stand. The live trees have moisture readings as low as 3 percent. The purposely dried 2-by-4’s sold at lumberyards in the arid Southwest have three times that much.

Fire watchers continually measure such things and combine them with temperature and humidity readings to figure out the ignition probability in a forest. On June 17, they total up to a dead certainty that a lightning strike, a spark, a match, or a carelessly discarded cigarette will start a wildfire.

There is no lightning but there are people in the forest and someone, carelessly or intentionally, starts a fire near the Aspen Trail.

It’s tough to imagine the Aspen Fire starting in a worse place, or at a worse time.

When Stan Kuba first spots a wisp of blue-gray smoke at 2:55 p.m. from his lookout cabin at Lemmon Rock, the fire is only two miles southwest of Summerhaven. Unlike last summer’s Bullock Fire, which started 10 miles from the village and took a week to reach its edge, the Aspen Fire instantly has Summerhaven in its crosshairs.

It is burning in the most beloved alpine setting in Southern Arizona. The loop formed by the Aspen and Marshall Gulch trails is heavily traveled — many of Mount Lemmon’s 1.5 million annual visitors find it a shady respite in summer and a marvel of New England-like color in the fall.

The Aspen Trail features a mature grove of the quaking beauties, their massive, white trunks initialed by generations of lovers. The Marshall Gulch Trail follows a flowing stream lined in places with bigtooth maples. They meet at Marshall Saddle, which is perched above the appropriately named Wilderness of Rocks.

Trails continue from here through that wilderness or back toward Summerhaven past a spring that waters a bed of mint and through a primeval forest where giant Douglas firs bear moss on their north sides, ferns grow waist high and columbines blossom in summer. This is the path the fire will follow.

Mike Stanley is in the firehouse that afternoon. A volunteer firefighter, Stanley is also the manager/operator of the Mount Lemmon Water Co-op. He is on the phone, talking to one of the co-op’s board members, Ross Quigley.

Quigley, in Tucson shopping for groceries, hears the fire call and feels instantly sick.

Quigley knows that Summerhaven is protected on the east and north by the Catalina Highway, the “black” from last year’s Bullock Fire and thinning projects done in the village since that scare.

“On the south and west boundaries, we needed a perimeter badly,” Quigley says later. Marshall Gulch was “the one spot we’ve always been afraid of a fire coming from.”

Firefighter Peevey drives to the Marshall Gulch trailhead with Mount Lemmon Fire Chief Dean Barnella. They meet up with a crew of Forest Service firefighters.

“We all hiked in as a unit, took us about an hour and a half to get in. When we got there, there was a fire that was kind of quiet coming up the ridge.

“We were on it for about 20 minutes scratching line and the wind came up and it just took it out of our hands.

“We exited rather hurriedly but it still took us an hour to get back. We knew Marshall Saddle was a dangerous area,” Peevey said.

That was also the instant assessment of Humphrey, who would soon be tapped to command as many as 1,200 firefighters assembled to battle the blaze.

“It looked bad to me before I ever got there,” said Humphrey, who heads one of the Southwest’s two Type I interagency fire teams, a rotating collection of the most highly trained and experienced wildland firefighters.

Humphrey, who lights “prescribed” fires when he isn’t putting out wild ones, is a fuels specialist for the Safford/Tucson fire management zone of the Bureau of Land Management.

He was familiar with the terrain. He commanded the team that fought the 30,563-acre Bullock Fire to a standstill just yards from Summerhaven last June.

“Our reconnaissance plane out of Safford flew it,” he said. “It was obvious it was not in a good place. I figured if it didn’t get rain, Summerhaven was gonna be history.”

Rain won’t come for a month. The Aspen Fire starts during the hottest, driest part of the year, on a day when it reaches 106 degrees at the Tucson airport. The wind blows steadily from the southwest at 10 to 15 mph, pushing the flames toward Summerhaven.

The fuel available to the Aspen Fire is plentiful and tinder dry. When you repeatedly put out fires, you deny the forest the ability to clear itself.

Fire historians trace the now discarded Forest Service policy of stamping out every fire to the Big Blow-Up of 1910, when fires roared across millions of acres of forest in Montana and Idaho, combined into a single front and killed 78 firefighters.

The Catalinas owe their human development, in part, to the Blow-Up. Suzanne Hensel’s history of the Catalinas, “Look to the Mountains,” relates an interview with Pauline Kitt Hull, whose family erected a tent house at Soldier Camp in 1910 and completed their cabin a decade later. When she was a girl, Hull says, there were metal plaques in the trees that read: “Remember the fires of 1910.”

The need to quickly contain fires was an impetus for better trails and roads in the Catalinas, writes Hensel, a Tucson native and former mountain resident and teacher at Summerhaven’s one-room school.

Without fire, the forest grew thick. With better trails and roads, human habitation increased.

The arduous pack-train rides that Hull and her family took to their getaway gave way to automobile trips up a north-side dirt road in 1920. By 1948, the paved road up the south side had been completed. Easy access led to more cabins and more campgrounds and recreational spots. Observatories, radar bases, communications towers and a ski area followed, creating even more demand for fire suppression.

Coronado National Forest officials immediately recognize the Aspen Fire’s destructive potential and order Humphrey’s Type I fire management team into action.

“I got called, probably within four hours,” said Humphrey. “We took over that next evening at 1800 (6 p.m.).”

They also order the evacuation of Summerhaven and close the Catalina Highway to all but emergency vehicles. Residents grab what they can and head down the mountain.

Alex Carrillo stays on at his Aspen Trail Bed and Breakfast to continue preparing his property to survive a fire. In the past month, he’s taken down 35 trees around his property. He has continually pressured the Forest Service to do the same.

In the meantime, local fire managers scramble to find tankers, helicopters and ground crews. Those resources are at a premium as the Southwest’s wildfire season starts to peak.

Ten of the region’s 13 helicopters are fighting other fires.

Of the eight available heavy air tankers, two are on their days off, two are staged in Utah and two are near Prescott, fighting a prescribed fire that escaped control lines.

Air tankers are a vital tool for firefighters during their initial attack since they can quickly access remote, rugged terrain that may take hours to reach by foot or fire engine. But across the nation, the aircraft are in short supply after two fatal crashes last summer forced the entire fleet to go through inspections, with some planes grounded forever.

The Catalinas have just lost a three-engine, 30-person contingent of firefighters to the Horseshoe Fire in the Chiricahua Mountains northeast of Douglas.

The Coronado hasn’t had its own hotshot crew since the 1980s, but it did have two visiting 20-person crews until a few days before the Aspen Fire began. But they were sent to fight other fires in Northern Arizona and New Mexico.

Seventy minutes after the smoke is spotted, at 4:05 p.m., a pilot circling above Marshall Peak reports the fire is at one acre, burning uphill, with the potential to threaten Mount Lemmon and Summerhaven. A half hour later, it is 10 acres and flames are starting to jump from treetop to treetop.

At 5:08 p.m., a Lockheed P2V air tanker drops its first load of 2,050 gallons of retardant — water mixed with dye and fire inhibitors.

Pilot Gordon Koenig said the fire was about 30 acres by the time he arrived, but its flames were sticking to the ground.

“If it wasn’t for the wind, the fire probably would have stayed at about 350 acres,” he said, adding that turbulence above the Catalinas and stiff winds cresting its ridges made it seem “like I was trying to fly beneath a waterfall.”

Koenig has time to make two more drops before the sun sets. As daylight wanes, another heavy air tanker makes two 2,000-gallon drops and a crop duster dumps 453 gallons of the slurry, which can slow, but often not stop, the flames’ advance.

“As far as I could see it was a well-fought fire and well-planned,” Koenig would say when people began to question the effectiveness of the initial attack. “Mother Nature had other ideas, and we lost.”

On that first evening, about 50 firefighters hike toward the fire along the Marshall Gulch and Aspen Loop trails, hoping to cut and dig a fuel break with only the tools they can carry. They are forced to retreat twice, at around 6 p.m and 3 a.m., as the flames quickly take hold in the forest canopy and spit out burning embers that start spot fires ahead of the main blaze.

Wednesday June 18

The crew from Northwest Fire is miles down the trail Wednesday morning when the wind blows fire back into the crowns of the big trees.

At 3 a.m., an order of “go” quickly changes to “run,” as flames shoot up both sides of the fire line. Firefighters run four miles through the darkness, accompanied by the persistent clanging of a bell.

One of the team’s newest members, Scott Rice, had been ordered to buy and wear a cow bell after getting lost on a previous fire.

Later that morning, the 24-year-old Rice confesses that his own emotions matched the cow bell’s clanging. “Last night made me a religious man,” he says. “It went from being calm and peaceful to crazy just like that.”

“Every crew should have a cow bell,” says Larry Bear, the Northwest crew boss.

Helicopters, air tankers, fire engines and hotshot crews are now streaming into the Catalinas to make a desperate last stand in Marshall Gulch.

Four heavy air tankers drop 60,556 gallons of retardant. Two helicopters drop buckets of water on hot spots. By evening, a half dozen hotshot crews are working on the mountain, with 20 fire engines preparing Summerhaven for the flames.

While the smoke grows thicker above the Catalinas, the winds reach only about 15 mph and the fire grows to only about 300 acres, giving firefighters some hope.

But the first day’s work is obliterated. Bear hikes down the trail, climbs a rocky outcrop and watches flames shoot up less than a mile away.

“See that. That’s our fire line from last night. All gone,” he says.

Humphrey, when he assumes command that evening, is not at all certain the ground crews will do any good.

“Initial attack had decided to try to cut it off on those trails, even though it was heavy timber,” he said later. Fire managers prefer to cut fire lines in shorter, less dense vegetation, but there was no such place between the fire and the village. “It was the only chance we had,” Humphrey said.

Thursday, June 19, 2003

Thursday morning is a smoky one in Summerhaven, but as the sun burns through and the ground heats up, the smoke begins to rise. The wind, getting stronger by the hour, blows ash into the village.

The wind turns drainages into chimneys that funnel the flames upward and preheat the trees ahead. Strike a match, hold it level, then tip it at a 45 degree angle and it’s obvious that fire likes to travel uphill.

In Summerhaven’s Carter Canyon, firefighters assigned to protect buildings, the “structure protection” crews, are cutting trees and removing burnable material around houses. The polite terms are “prepping” and “treating,” but there is nothing polite about this work. They are ruthlessly accomplishing in minutes what other homeowners have spent their weekends doing over the past year.

They’ve also set up sprinklers around these homes on the far southwest end of Summerhaven, closest to the fire, and are waiting for the fittings to connect them to a water source. There won’t be time for that.

By noon, crews are told to be ready to evacuate within an hour. About 30 minutes later, radio chatter takes a noticeably frantic tone. Spot fires have crossed Marshall Gulch in several places, and one lookout reports that the fire has already crested the ridge.

Volunteer firefighter Carol Mack knows the fire is out there behind the curtain of green forest. She can smell the smoke and see the ash.

Mack had closed her gift shop Tuesday when the siren sounded and headed to the Mount Lemmon Fire Station to go to work. On Tuesday and Wednesday, she laid fire hose to reach houses hugging the steep slopes of the side canyons that drain into Sabino Creek.

Now she and fellow volunteer Dennis Cozzetti are at the intersection of Carter Canyon Road and Miner’s Ridge, setting up a “pumpkin,” a 2,500-gallon water container that can be filled with water and pumped to protect the homes.

A crew of hotshots comes double-timing toward them. “You have to leave,” one of them says.

Cozzetti begins to throw equipment into the back of his construction pickup. A man drives up in a fire vehicle. “You have to leave now.” he says.

The fire is on its way.

They drive to the fire station, passing the general store where Carol’s husband, Phil, has stayed to help feed and supply the firefighters. He’ll needle her in the days to come about passing him by. She calls him from the fire station and he meets her there.

The volunteers and the business owners who stayed behind are ordered off the mountain.

Don Underhill, owner of the Alpine Inn, had expected more time. He stayed when the village was evacuated to brief out-of-town firefighters on the geography of the place from a fire lookout behind his house.

He would have grabbed more business records, but he figured this would be just like last year’s Bullock Fire. There would be more time and the firefighters would eventually stop it.

He’s left with a dilemma. He has two vehicles and one driver. He must choose between his 14-year-old, mint condition, BMW convertible and the old Suburban he has loaded up with some essentials. He chooses the Suburban. His last view of Summerhaven is an immense tower of smoke in the vehicle’s rear-view mirror.

Stanley, the water co-op manager, has to first go home to get his dog, Me, and the rolling briefcase of important papers he has kept by the door since last year’s Bullock Fire.

The delay gives him a view of the Aspen Fire rolling over the ridge between Marshall and Carter canyons. “It was just like a waterfall of flame coming down, rolling and throwing off embers,” said Stanley.

Stanley estimates the flames were 200 to 300 feet tall. “You could hear it,” he said. “It sounded like a jet.”

The sound was the first thing that alerted Pete Mendoza of the Tubac Fire District. He had been assigned lookout duty for his structure protection crew. “You could hear it before you saw it, that freight train, a pretty amazing sound. Then we saw it top the ridge and we were out of there.”

The residents and the firefighters retreat several miles down the paved Catalina Highway.

Jim Grantham stays atop the mountain at the observatory he manages for the University of Arizona at the 9,157-foot summit of Mount Lemmon. With its paved parking lot and helipad, the observatory compound is considered a safety zone.

Steve Hensel of the Forest Service agrees to stay with him to help run the generators, pumps and hoses that will keep the helicopter dipping tanks filled throughout the fire.

Chief Barnella and his Mount Lemmon firefighters expect to lose their fire station but they want to be in place to save whatever is left of Summerhaven after the fire comes through.

After sending his volunteers and his wife, Assistant Fire Chief Deanna Barnella, along with their son and dog down the paved road, Barnella and Capt. Harry Findysz drive down the rocky, unpaved Control Road that traverses the mountain’s north side to Oracle. They will retreat seven miles as the wind pushes fire in the same direction.

Dave La Tour, strike team leader for one of three structure protection teams in Summerhaven, drives the last vehicle of the three teams out of Summerhaven. He sees a pair of construction workers loading a piece of pipe onto a truck.

“Park that and leave,” La Tour yells at the men.

Ten minutes after the retreat is completed, a column of ever-darkening smoke sweeps over Summerhaven.

From Inspiration Point and Spencer Canyon, fire crews watch the cloud grow in size until it towers over the entire mountain. Many of them snap pictures or shoot video of the column.

From Tucson, it is obvious that something has gone terribly wrong.

An ominous column of dirty gray smoke billows thousands of feet above the Catalinas, making the city’s signature mountain range look like a volcano. The rising heat and water vapor form a classic pyrocumulus cloud crowned with a snow-white ice cap.

La Tour and his Northwest Fire crew park their rigs at Spencer Canyon, just a few miles down the highway from the inferno.

“It’s going to be bad for a while and then it’s going to calm down some,” he says. “That’s why we’re parked here instead of down the mountain. As soon as we can, we’re going to head back in there and do what we can for Summerhaven.”

Barnella and Findysz are eager to get back up the mountain, but wary of running into fire on the rocky, narrow Control Road where in most spots it’s impossible to turn a car around.

Stanley, who has waited things out on the paved Catalina Highway drives to Aspen Vista, where he can get a view of the north side of the mountain and the road they must traverse.

He radios that the road looks OK, but he can’t see the last half mile or so.

They head back.

Shortly after 5 p.m., the firefighters charged with “structure protection” on Mount Lemmon head back as well.

Carol Mack and her husband, Phil, have made it to Tucson, driving separate vehicles. Her scanner is losing its signal from the fire department’s Mount Bigelow transmitter as they drive around Pusch Ridge toward the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf and Tennis Resort, where Mount Lemmon’s refugees have been offered free room and board.

She tells Phil to go ahead and check in. She’s turning back. She parks at River and Oracle roads to listen as Findysz narrates the scene.

“He’s driving down the street saying ‘The cafe and the post office are intact. The realty office is intact.’ ”

Mack is pumping her arms and “Hurraying” at word of every saved building.

Then Findysz drives by the Mount Lemmon General Store and Gift Shop, which Carol and Phil bought just three years ago. “The general store and the coffeehouse are gone,” he says.

“It was probably 6:30 when Harry made it down to where our place was. At that point I just went numb,” said Mack. She sits in the parking lot, unable to drive or even pick up the phone.

“About 7, Phil called me on the cell phone and said ‘I haven’t heard from you.’ I said ‘I’m sorry, I just can’t drive right now.’ He got concerned and came and met me and we hugged and shed a couple tears. Then I slapped myself on both cheeks and said ‘I’m gonna drive to the hotel.’

“You have two choices,” Mack said, “falling apart and being totally worthless or saying ‘OK, let’s see what use and benefit you can be to others.’ ”

She would rest at the Hilton for two days, then head back up the mountain.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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