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Mt. Lemmon brush fire puts Summerhaven on edge

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Mt. Lemmon brush fire puts Summerhaven on edge

  • Drivers making their way up the Catalina Highway to Summerhaven on Friday were reminded on the danger of wildfires.
    Juan Forrer/TucsonSentinel.comDrivers making their way up the Catalina Highway to Summerhaven on Friday were reminded on the danger of wildfires.
  • Juan Forrer/

Firefighters responded to the scene of a brush fire near milepost 19 of the Catalina Highway on Friday morning. Though the fire was quickly extinguished, many of the residents of the town remained on edge.

News made its way through the mountaintop village of Summerhaven on Friday that a brush fire was spotted earlier that morning, despite the closure of the entire surrounding Coronado National Forest due to the high risk of wildfires.

The telephone broke the silence of the Living Rainbow gift shop at the top of Mount Lemmon. A neighbor who had made his way to California for a funeral called to check on news of the brush fire. Next, a member of the fire department called. Customers and shop owners whispered among themselves.

“People are on pins and needles,” said Debbie Fagan, owner of the shop and a volunteer firefighter.

The fire was a small one, said Deputy David Conto of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. A brush fire in the same location Wednesday, caused by an unattended campfire, reignited Friday.

“There’s always potential for reigniting,” Conto said. “You can never put enough water on a fire to drown it.”

Fagan said she routinely walks and hikes around the area, canvassing campgrounds for lit fires that have been left unattended, cigarette butts, and uncovered grills. After losing her home and business in the 2003 Aspen Fire, she has been cautious. Her handheld radio sat on the counter of her shop.

The fire danger in the Coronado National forest remains "extreme," prompting the closure of the forest. Friday's brush fire was something that prohibitions on campfires and the closure of the forest had hoped to prevent. 

On Friday, only the 27-mile road leading from Tucson to Summerhaven and portions of Sabino Canyon remained open. Hiking trails were closed. Camping was prohibited. Starting a campfire was out of the question. The punishment for violating the closure is a fine that could reach up to $5,000 and six months in jail.

The forest will remain closed until summer rains dampen the wildfire risk, officials said.

Conto said that there were a number of violations of the closure, ranging from people walking past barricades and hiking on trails to parking in restricted areas along the highway.

Pamela Selby-Harman, who runs the Summerhaven post office, said that residents had a “heightened awareness” after the news of the brush fire. She urged those violating the closure to stop.  

“People don’t seem to get how their actions affect other people,” she said. “It’s uncomfortable when your life and livelihood depend on other people’s actions.”

The memory of the Aspen fire that destroyed 89 percent of the community remains fresh in the minds of the town’s residents. Looming above the town stands a bald patch of mountain, where charred branches still hang from blackened trunks. Selby-Harmon lost her home in the blaze. After she rebuilt her home, she couldn’t stand to live in the changed community and moved to Tucson.

“It was like living on the moon,” Selby-Harmon said. “The wind was different. We were living in the forest, and then we were living on the moon.”

Every summer Selby-Harmon receives letters from around the state that were destined for the Boy Scout and Girl Scout camps nearby. This summer, she says, all the letters are being “returned to sender.” The camps shut their doors for the summer after the forest was closed.

Business has changed and the town has a different atmosphere, without the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, campers and hikers, she said. Instead, the visitors are coming only to visit the top of the mountain.

Mike Edgell, who works at the Mt. Lemmon Cookie Cabin, said that it was still too soon to know what the closure’s impact would be on business. Edgell said the number of customers Friday was not abnormal, but that the true test would come Sunday, with the community’s Sunday concert series.

Edgell’s home was one of the few that were left untouched by the 2003 blaze. He said that regardless of the impact on businesses, the closure of the forest was necessary, especially with the brush fire still smoldering. 

“Unfortunately, this is something that had to be done,” he said. “I don’t know what it is. People are simply not thinking and not caring.”

Along the Catalina Highway, bright orange barricades and caution tape prevented vehicles from pulling into vistas and campgrounds, funneling traffic to the top of the mountain. Summerhaven was the only stop. At each campground, posted signs reminded drivers and hikers of the steep costs of violating the closure.

Still, visitors made their way up the twisting highway to Summerhaven, despite not being able to stop along the highway to enjoy the vistas overlooking Tucson or to hike in the surrounding forest. 

Stephanie Montano and Matt Maiden drove up from their home in Tucson. They did not know about the closure until they started to see all the signs along the road, but they continued to the top. 

Marshall Sanders, who lives in Tucson, brought his family up to enjoy cookies at the Mt. Lemmon Cookie Cabin and to escape the heat. He said that they had driven up hoping to find the mountain less crowded. "It looks like we were right," he said, as he glanced at some of the empty tables nearby. 

Sanders and his wife spent their honeymoon on the mountain in 1997. Sanders said he has been coming to Mount Lemmon on average of four times a year since and has seen the mountain before and after the 2003 fire. After seeing the devastation, he said he understands the forest closure.

"I don't know if the town could survive if it burned like that again," he said. "It has recovered miraculously for what was done to it."

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