Another 300 homes evacuated ahead of Arizona fire
Official: Wildfire could burn tens of thousands of acres
TUCSON, Arizona (CNN) -- Residents of about 300 more homes in the path of a wildfire raging near Tucson, Arizona, were evacuated Friday, bringing to about 1,000 the number of people forced from their homes since Tuesday, officials said.
The 4,000-acre Aspen fire has burned down at least half the homes in the vacation community of Summerhaven, northeast of Tucson, and fire officials predicted Friday that the blaze would spread and do more damage before they contain it.
The blaze started in the "worst dreams of a place for a fire to start," incident manager Larry Humphrey said Friday.
Humphrey said the fire could swell into the "tens of thousands of acres" and burn many more homes than the 250 already destroyed. He told reporters that because of the rugged terrain, it could take at least two weeks to contain the fire.
"It could go longer than that," he said.
"When I saw it plotted on a map, I knew we were in trouble unless we got rain," he said. "[Initial attack teams] never stood a chance. From the time it ignited it was a foregone conclusion this thing was going to go where it wanted to go."
Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll said hot, gusty winds spread the fire farther Friday.
"It's the devil's breath," he said of the wind.
The winds -- some gusting up to 60 mph -- forced fire crews to retreat from 9,157-foot Mount Lemmon. The winds also were too strong and too erratic for an aerial attack.
Carroll said it would be a long time before residents could get back to Summerhaven.
"We've got propane tanks popping off, red-hot logs rolling onto roads and boulders rolling down steep embankments," he said.
At least half the 500 or so homes and businesses in Summerhaven -- a mountainside community of about 100 permanent residents and many part-time residents and tourists -- were destroyed after the fire jumped the Catalina Highway, he said.
Through clearing smoke, news cameras revealed a scene of hazy devastation Friday morning, interrupted by an occasional cabin left intact by the inferno that incinerated surrounding buildings.
"The flames were hot enough to melt all the street signs in town, they melted the wheels on cars," Carroll said.
"It looked like Salvador Dali designed Summerhaven," he added, referring to the surrealist Spanish artist.
Humphrey said structural-protection crews had saved about 60 homes in Summerhaven and nearby Loma Linda, and were working to protect another 50 to 60 homes near Syke Knob, east of Summerhaven.
The fire also threatened a key communications site, the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory and a popular ski area.
"It blew by the ski lodge," Humphrey said, "but it could come back and try to take it the second time. We just aren't getting a break from the wind."
The cause of the fire, burning near Marshall Peak south and west of Summerhaven in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness, was under investigation.
"Because of the fire behavior and for safety reasons, we have not been able to get to the area of origin," Pima County Sheriff's Detective David Conto said.
Summerhaven and several children's camps in the Mount Lemmon area were evacuated. There were no reports of injuries or fatalities, Fire Information Officer Carrie Templin said.
Gov. Janet Napolitano declared a state of emergency in Pima County and said the National Guard was on alert. Representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency have been dispatched to Arizona, she said.
Arizona firefighters also were battling the 4,500-acre Lizard fire southeast of Flagstaff, the 1,000-acre Cherry fire in Prescott National Forest, and the 2,000-acre Picture fire in Tonto National Forest.
In all, 14 large wildfires were burning Friday in five Southwestern states and Alaska.