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Firefighters: Arizona blaze 5 percent contained

Aspen fire could torch 'tens of thousands of acres'

A tree burns Saturday as the Aspen fire spreads northeast of Tucson, Arizona.

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Smoke pours into the sky from the wildfire raging on Mount Lemmon.
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A wildfire near Tucson, Arizona, continues to blaze after devastating homes and property in the area.
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TUCSON, Arizona (CNN) -- The Arizona wildfire that has torched thousands of acres will likely char "tens of thousands of acres" before firefighters bring it under control, fire officials warned Saturday.

Firefighters said they had hoped the scorched terrain left by last year's fires would give them an advantage. But Larry Humphrey, manager at the scene, said gusty winds and treacherous topography will complicate the fight.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano toured the fire-stricken region Saturday.

"I have a pretty big vocabulary. [But] I don't have a vocabulary big enough or accurate enough to describe what it is like to see the fire, to see the flames from the air, to be told that this morning when the flames were on top of one of the ridges they were taller than the towers on the top of the ridges," she said. "This is a big fire."

Officials estimated Saturday evening that the fire -- which had charred 6,300 acres -- was only 5 percent contained.

The resort communities of Summerhaven, Loma Linda and Lower Soldier Camp have been hit by the Aspen fire despite the efforts of more than 700 firefighters to defend homes and businesses against the raging blaze.

"We have a long way to go, but some progress is being made," Napolitano said.

At least 250 houses -- about half the town -- were destroyed in Summerhaven, a vacation community that has about 100 permanent residents, along with part-timers and tourists, Humphrey said.

Loma Linda lost fewer than half its houses, he said, and Lower Soldier Camp lost about a third of its 30-50 houses.

Humphrey said the intensity of the fire had kept disaster-assessment teams from getting an accurate look at the damage -- and he warned that even areas already ravaged by the fire had "reburn potential."

"We still have an active fire, a lot of small fires in there," he said. "Just because houses are still standing today or yesterday does not mean they will be standing tomorrow."

More than 1,000 homes have been evacuated since the fire began Tuesday, along with a number of children's camps in the area. Humphrey said at least one radio tower atop Radio Ridge -- a key communications site for the area -- had been destroyed, and "we may have lost more."

Forest policy debated

Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl used the fire to rekindle a debate that is sure to follow the course of wildfires throughout the summer: efforts to preserve more of the nation's vanishing forests vs. the need to protect communities that have sprung up deeper in once-plentiful forest lands.

"The Mount Lemmon fire is yet another reminder of the need for Arizona to speak with one voice in support of efforts to provide urgent, immediate treatments -- specifically thinning -- to forests at critical risk of wildfires before other areas of our state experience similar tragedies," Kyl said in a statement.

Many environmentalists oppose Kyl's position, arguing instead for less logging and more prescribed burns to mimic the natural cycles of lightning-sparked fires that occurred in forests long before the arrival of cities, towns, communities and campgrounds.

Arizona has been plagued by several other fires, including the 3,500-acre Picture fire -- a quarter of it contained -- in Tonto National Forest.

Nationwide, 10 large wildfires were burning Saturday in four Western states and Alaska -- half of them in Arizona -- as seasonal dry weather sparked the beginnings of another summer of wildfires.

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