Associated Press Writer
SUMMERHAVEN, Ariz. (AP) - This tiny mountain enclave perched
above Tuscon had always been a cool escape from the desert heat for
residents and vacationers alike - except for one year ago, when a
savage wildfire devastated its heart, destroying 322 homes and
several businesses up on Mount Lemmon.
But today, new homes and businesses are sprouting amid skeletons
of pine, spruce and fir trees. Nurtured by the springtime green-up
and the optimistic perseverance of residents, Summerhaven appears
to be growing back.
"We're choosing to look forward instead of backward," said
Carol Mack, who with her husband, Phil, will reopen their new
log-walled Mount Lemmon General Store and Gift Shop on Saturday, a
year to the day after it burned down.
Her husband said the past year has been the longest of his life.
"It's been a nightmare many times over, and many nights I woke
up wondering, 'Why the hell are we doing this? Take what we could
get from the insurance and leave,"' Phil Mack said. It was his
wife's persistence, he said, that kept them rebuilding.
The 84,750-acre Aspen fire represented the second part of a
vicious one-two punch. In 2002, another wildfire charred more than
30,500 acres on the same mountain, but Summerhaven was spared. Not
so last June.
The Aspen fire began June 17, 2003, near the Aspen trail - about
a mile from Summerhaven, which is about 45 minutes northeast of
Residents were evacuated that night and firefighters held the
fire at bay until two days later. That's when surging 60 mph winds
shifted to the northeast, toward Summerhaven and an area called
Carter Canyon. Modest wood cabins and posh full-time homes were
lost in the firestorm.
"God said, `Today's not your day,"' said John Jones, just
retired as the county's liaison for the Mount Lemmon recovery
effort. "Nothing could have prevented the fires in the village."
The fire threatened other subdivisions and an observatory on the
9,157-foot mountain but seemed under control by late June, only to
make another major run. A second major crew of seasoned
firefighters arrived to contain the blaze by July 15, four full
weeks after it started.
Its toll reached 322 homes, seven of nine businesses and four
other structures. Only 129 homes or cabins remained.
A 22-year-old Tucson man was sentenced to two years of probation
last month for lying to investigators in saying he didn't smoke
while hiking on the Aspen trail the day the fire started. The
investigation into who caused the fire remains open.
Residents of the square-mile village, on private land surrounded
by national forest, have had to wrestle with insurance carriers.
And Pima County weighed in with new building restrictions: more
stringent codes intended to make the community less susceptible to
another calamitous fire.
But so far, construction has started on 40 homes, with another
32 permits pending, said Jones, who also heads a homeowners'
association here.
Pam Rinella lost her home, though her business, the Mount Lemmon
Cafe, was spared. She is happy to see people returning.
"It's all how you look at it," said Rinella, who is living in
a travel trailer while her home is rebuilt.
"When people say 'devastated,' I say, 'Look at Afghanistan and
Iraq.' When you look at Mount Lemmon, use the word 'correction.'
Mother Nature took it upon herself to correct a problem" - forests
that were too dense.
In the fire's aftermath, despite predictions, property values
did not decline. They have held stable or increased slightly, said
contractor Dennis Cozzetti.
Lots range from $60,000 to $200,000 and construction costs vary
from $100 to $200 a square foot, said Cozzetti and longtime
Summerhaven real estate agent Bob Zimmerman.
Jones said he doesn't anticipate Summerhaven becoming a wealthy
only enclave, but a community with "a much greater spread of
offerings than it had in the past."
And the once-overgrown forest will look as it should, Zimmerman
"Now we're going to look more like the way these Western
forests are supposed to look like," he said. "I'm very heartened
by what I'm seeing. It just amazes every day."

APTV 06-17-04 0156EDT