TUCSON - Firefighters never stood much of a chance of stopping a wildfire that destroyed about 250 homes in a mountaintop hamlet, although they made a good effort, a top fire official said Friday.
“By the time this thing ignited, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion this thing was going to go where it wanted to go,’’ said Larry Humphrey, commander of the fire team battling the Aspen fire on Mount Lemmon.
Driven through dry country by winds up to 60 mph, the fire roared across the community of Summerhaven in about an hour Thursday, reducing some homes to smoking rubble while leaving others untouched.
Humphrey said the fire started Tuesday in the worst possible place. “We had predicted if we had a fire in the area that we would probably lose Summerhaven, and that’s pretty much been the case,’’ he said. “So unfortunately our predictions were pretty good.’’
Firefighters had tried to protect the homes by making a stand along Thursday a trail about a mile away, but had to pull back when the intense blaze crossed the path.
“The problem is this is extremely difficult country with extremely heavy fuels, and without rain on this and with the way the winds and humidity are, they never stood a chance,’’ Humphrey said.
He said the fire, which was estimated at about 3,200 acres early Friday, will likely eventually cover tens of thousands of acres because there’s no good place to stop it.
The cause was under investigation.
The blaze consumed pine trees ravaged by years of drought and an infestation of tree-killing bark beetles. It is one of several wildfires in Arizona, where fire officials are braced for another busy year after seeing 630,000 acres burned in 2002.
Heavy smoke hid the community from observers flying overhead Friday, parting occasionally to reveal a moonscape of blackened trees stripped of their branches by the flames. A cul de sac with homes burned to the foundation was visible from above.
Fire officials said their efforts Friday focused on protecting what was left in the town as well as defending outlying homes.
Firefighters were laying water lines and digging lines around homes in Summerhaven, which has an estimated 700 homes and cabins and a handful of businesses.
Firefighters were also digging a line to protect about 40 homes in an area southeast of Summerhaven called Syke Knob, said fire spokeswoman Heidi Schewel.
They were working on a line to protect camp sites and other scattered homes further down the mountain and another to shield a series of transmitter towers, she said.
Firefighters expected to be hindered by the weather, with forecasts calling for wind gusts of up to 35 mph and continued dry conditions.
Evacuees and owners of second homes in Summerhaven who were forced to leave Tuesday waited 6,000 feet below in Tucson to learn the fate of their community.
Richard Greenberg, who has had a vacation home on Mount Lemmon for 18 years, said he was at the firefighters’ headquarters at a school at the foot of the mountain “to grasp for straws.’’
“It’s probably better just to imagine it’s gone,’’ said Greenberg. “I’m pretty sure it’s gone.’’
The community only has about 100 year-round residents. Its population swells during weekends and summers as visitors drive the sole paved road winding its way up the 9,157-foot Mount Lemmon to escape the desert heat.
“It’s a resilient bunch,’’ said Brian Ashby, who has owned property on the mountain for 25 years. “We’ll bounce back.’’