Homeowners Return After Arizona Fires

SUMMERHAVEN, Ariz. (AP) -- Catherine Westervelt wouldn't turn her eyes away from the pile of rubble that had been a family treasure.

Staring at ashy remnants and bits of misshapen metal, she could muster only a halting whisper as she tried to talk about the vacation cabin, built by her father more than 30 years ago.

``It's like losing a family,'' Westervelt said, beginning to cry. ``It was my dad's. It was his and we lost him three years ago. It's like losing him all over again because this was the last thing of his we had.''

Westervelt was among dozens of property owners who returned to Summerhaven on Thursday, a month after a wildfire chased them away before ravaging the mountaintop vacation hamlet north of Tucson. The 84,750-acre blaze was contained Tuesday.

Residents found a charred landscape where trees were reduced to barren trunks and some homes were burned to their foundations while others remained untouched.

Residents whose homes were spared are free to stay as long as they want. No decision has been made on when the public will be allowed up the mountain.

``It's a kick in the head,'' said Westervelt's husband, Richard. He was watering two apple trees _ the only things left standing on the property _ using a tube running from a barrel in the back of his pickup.

The fire broke out June 17 on Mount Lemmon, forcing property owners to flee Summerhaven and surrounding subdivisions. It tore through the community two days later, as high winds drove flames through pine forest ravaged by drought and tree-killing beetles.

A total of 322 homes and cabins, seven businesses and four other buildings were lost during the initial surge and another run earlier this month. The fire was caused by people, and remains under investigation.

As its name suggests, Summerhaven has been an oasis in the pines 6,000 feet above Tucson, near the summit of 9,150-foot Mount Lemmon. It's been a place to escape from triple-digit heat in the summer and to throw snowballs or ski in the winter.

Summerhaven has about 100 year-round residents, but its population swells in the summer and on weekends as people head to cabins, second homes and campgrounds.

Phil Mack, the owner of the Mount Lemmon General Store and Gift Shop, which was destroyed, said he expects many people to rebuild.

``It's still going to be 25 to 30 degrees cooler than in town and we're still going to have snow in the winter,'' said Mack, who lived above his store. ``Tucsonans are going to want to bring their kids up to play in the snow and we'll be selling sleds and gloves again.''

As Summerhaven residents returned, firefighters across the West continued their battles in what has been a mild fire season overall. The National Interagency Fire Center reported Thursday that 1.12 million acres of forest have burned so far this season, compared to a 10-year, year-to-date average of 1.89 million acres.

As many as 5,000 people remained evacuated from the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in eastern Arizona because of a 18,200-acre wildfire. The fire came within a quarter-mile of some homes Wednesday, but officials said residents could be allowed to return to their homes as early as Friday.

In Wyoming, 15 Boy Scouts and their leaders were plucked by helicopter from the Shoshone National Forest backcountry, where they had been cut off when authorities closed a trail because of a rapidly expanding wildfire. The 1,000-acre fire was burning away from the Scouts, who had been stranded but not in danger, fire managers said.

In California, about 1,100 firefighters worked to contain a wildfire that had burned 11,200 acres of steep, hilly brush near the Riverside-San Diego county line and destroyed two San Diego State University research buildings.

Audrey Hagen, spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry, said a third research building was damaged.

Jason Foster, a school spokesman, had no information on fire damage. But he said the university operates the Sky Oaks biological and environmental research center in the area. Equipment at the field station includes computers, scientific instruments and fertilizer.

About 600 people were evacuated from a Boy Scout summer camp as a precaution, and an undetermined number of residents were forced from their homes.

Firefighters also continued to battle spot fires in the north-central Washington town of Okanogan, where a wind-whipped fire destroyed six houses and heavily damaged two others Wednesday. Dozens of other houses were threatened before firefighters, aided by aircraft dropping retardant, contained the 350-acre fire, Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said.

Fires in Colorado closed Mesa Verde National Park, although officials said its ancient ruins did not appear to be threatened.

Major wildfires also were reported in Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and Utah.