Up in Smoke

What's in store for Summerhaven and Mount Lemmon?

In the summer of 1969, Shirley and Robert Ewell, along with their family and their friends, began clearing a lot on Carter Canyon Road, near the settlement of Summerhaven in the Santa Catalina mountains.

It was a good site; the road was accessible throughout the year, and the plot was deeded--not leased from the Forest Service, which could have taken back the land after two decades.

First, the Ewells cut the hill out by hand, then they laid a foundation. Over the next couple of years, they erected a fine, three-story, semi-A frame cabin on the site across from the Aspen Trail Bed and Breakfast, using timber from the Catalinas and putting up a sheet-metal roof to guard against fire.

From 1972 they and their daughters and friends spent their summers in the cabin, and usually went up for Christmas, hoping for snow. Even after Bob died in 1988, the cabin was Shirley's special refuge.

It was a refuge she was forced to flee on the evening of Tuesday, June 17. The Aspen Fire was pushing north from its origin on Marshall Peak, devouring whatever ponderosa pine, oak or chaparral was in its way, and heading over the ridge between Marshall and Carter canyons. Abundant natural kindling and 60-mph winds nourished and spread the flames, which were leaping 200 to 300 feet into the air.

Shirley and most of the area's other residents were given two hours to evacuate. Her second husband, Coy Sims, had just gone down to Tucson for plumbing supplies before the evacuation call and road closure, so Shirley had to squeeze a few boxes of clothes into a neighbor's vehicle and leave everything else behind.

For the next two days, Shirley and Coy waited in a motor home parked on some friends' property in Catalina, watching through the window of the dining nook as plumes of brownish-white smoke progressed toward Summerhaven.

"It was awesome to see that big ol' cloud when the wind caught the fire," Shirley says. "I don't know how people down in Oracle and San Manuel could breathe from all the smoke."

Firefighters, stumbling on the steep terrain and dodging shrapnel from exploding propane tanks, were reduced to protecting only buildings that could be saved with a quarter-hour's work, moving on before they sacrificed themselves for structures that some conservationists think shouldn't have been there in the first place.

On Thursday afternoon, with the roar of a jet engine, the Aspen Fire took barely an hour to consume more than half of Summerhaven's 400 cabins and businesses. Fire officials estimated that 250 homes were destroyed, but other observers later put the total at 300 to 350.

Among the losses was Shirley's cabin, a place that for 30 years had hosted children's slumber parties, Christmas dinners, groups from Shirley's Church of Christ, and visits from innumerable hummingbirds and squirrels and even the occasional curious bear.

Shirley would likely call this fire an act of God, but it's more like an act of Congress in the opinion of Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity.

"There's about a billion dollars available specifically for doing prescribed burns and thinning small trees around fire-threatened communities like Summerhaven," Suckling says. "But a huge amount of that money has been diverted to logging old-growth forests.

"The Democrats (in the U.S. House and Senate) put forth several bills and amendments to bills in the last year saying we want all this timber money to be devoted to thinning in the wildland-urban interface; we don't want it spent in the wilderness where there are no homes. (Arizona Sen.) Jon Kyl voted against every one of those bills. Summerhaven burned down because Jon Kyl and George Bush and all their timber-industry sponsors diverted public money away to log the wilderness."

Kyl spokesman Matthew Latimer declined to answer the Center for Biological Diversity's accusations without a list of the bills Sucking claims Kyl voted against.

THE U.S. FOREST SERVICE IS collaborating with several other agencies on the National Fire Plan, which reserves about $450 million out of a billion-dollar fire-suppression and fire-readiness budget for performing controlled burns and clearing small trees and other easily flammable material from the wildland-urban interface--the place where forests and towns meet. Arizona's share of that booty for this fiscal year is $12.934 million.

The Forest Service started an intensive fire-prevention program around World War II, with mascot Smokey Bear, but after five decades, the government and conservationists realized that forests actually need small fires to prevent devastating large fires.

"Periodic fires clean out the forest," says Charles Bowden, a hell-raising Tucson-based writer whose books include Frog Mountain Blues, about the Catalinas. "If you just let the forest grow, it's the same thing as if you keep your daily papers 15 years and stack 'em up in your house; as soon as somebody drops a match, the whole thing is gone."

That's the condition much of Coronado National Forest, whose realm includes the Catalinas, has reached. According to Arizona State University biology professor Stephen J. Pyne, "The Catalinas are practically a dictionary definition of fire-prone. An annual cycle of wetting and drying means lots of fuel in a state to burn. Droughts magnify the combustibles actually available to burn. The abrupt elevation assures that some part of the mountain will likely be prone to fire every year (winter rains fluff up the deserts and lower elevations with fuels, while droughts drain the upper elevation forests of moisture). And there is lightning. The Southwest boasts the highest concentration of lightning fires in the United States. So fire will happen.

"People have aggravated the scene--they light fires, introduce exotic grasses, allow woods to congest. (The process began with overgrazing, then gave way to outright fire exclusion.) They build communities, often of wood, which means they burn like the surrounding forests."

So the Forest Service is now charged with removing the kindling from around places like Summerhaven. Deb Gill, fire communication planner for the Forest Service's Southwest region, says that in this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, the wildland-urban interface program targeted 33,758 arces in Arizona. She says that this year's non-wildland-urban interface projects involving thinning, burning and brush crushing cover 33,792 Arizona acres.

"It varies by forest, as to what's considered wildland-urban interface," she adds.

And that's a problem, according to Suckling of the aggressive, lawsuit-wielding Center for Biological Diversity.

"There's no financial interest to the timber industry in cutting small trees, so they've been diverting fire reduction funds to logging old-growth trees that are 10, 20, 30 miles away from houses," he says.

"There are multiple timber sales now in Kaibab National Forest, on the north side of the Grand Canyon. That's about as far from a human dwelling as you can get in Arizona. And because it's far from humans, it's got tons of old trees. That's where they're logging because that's where the money is, and it has nothing to do with preserving human life or structures.

"What's the timber industry going to do with all the 9- and 12-inch (thick) trees coming out of Summerhaven? It's a nightmare for them. The Forest Service will often try to force the timber industry to take these trees out, awarding a contract that says you can have 500,000 large trees, but we also want you to cart away a million little trees. So the first year, they take out all the big trees, then they go back to the Forest Service to say, 'We ran out of money; please don't make us take the little trees,' and the Forest Service lets them out of the contract."

Meanwhile, Suckling says, local Forest Service managers can't wrangle enough money from their higher-ups for programs that would protect Summerhaven. Last year, he says, only $175,000 out of a needed $1 million came through for work on the Catalinas, so the Forest Service was able to thin only about 200 acres. A Coronado National Forest schedule of proposed actions issued last October reveals that some efforts, notably the Red/Bear/Soldier fuel reduction project, are on hold because of lack of funds.

Suckling blames Kyl and Bush and powerful logging interests for these problems. Kyl, meanwhile, has done some finger-pointing of his own, contending that environmentalists have thwarted efforts to thin forests properly--which in his view involves broader logging practices. In a statement released last Friday, the day after Summerhaven burned, Kyl says, "These treatments cannot be applied solely to narrow corridors around communities. They must be done deep in the forest, where fires often begin. Summerhaven residents have been thinning around homes, but that has proven sadly inadequate when the crown fire raged in the greater forest and then rushed up the canyon toward the community."

For its part, the Forest Service is adamant that it's working in the interests of the residents, not the loggers. "We do not do treatments that are lumber based," says Gill. "We do treatments in many different areas that include prescribed burns, thinning and brush crushing, but we don't go out there deliberately doing lumber."

Meanwhile, fire crews right now are struggling to create a defensible space that would have been easier and safer to accomplish before the Aspen Fire ignited.

WHETHER OR NOT KYL'S votes helped redirect funds that should have gone for hazardous fuel reduction around forest-skirted towns, Summerhaven wouldn't exist in the first place without a history of diversion and sleight-of-hand.

In 1882, Frank Webber capitalized on the Timber Homestead Act to secure for himself 160 acres at the site of the future Summerhaven. Webber finagled this even though there was no road to the top of Mount Lemmon, and no way to get logs down to market in Tucson and beyond. Webber did make at least a token effort to haul some logs around, but by 1917, his acreage was being subdivided for homesites.

Far more blatant was Randolph Jenks' 1947 manipulation of federal laws to get public lands into his private hands. Jenks filed a mining claim near Summerhaven, but instead of operating a mine, he almost immediately began subdividing his 250-some acres. After a court fight, Jenks had to give back 148 acres, but what he got to keep swelled the private holdings at Summerhaven to 270 acres.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service was issuing 20-year leases to cabin-builders. Over the past couple of decades, people on leased land have expected the Forest Service to take back the property as leases expired, and it has even offered to buy back some of the private property, or trade for land elsewhere.

"They tried to buy mine," says Shirley Ewell Sims. "They said, 'If you'd improve this, and this, and this, you'd get more for it,' but why should I improve it if they're just going to buy it and tear it down?" Shirley refused to sell.

The village and the cabins had become a small environmental headache. By the 1970s, the hundreds of septic tanks had hopelessly polluted Sabino Creek. Cars clotted the place on summer weekends.

Yet, under its multiple-uses mandate, the Forest Service couldn't bring itself to eradicate all the human beings for the sake of the Catalinas' trees and springs and air and soil. It wasn't just pressure from a few mining interests and the owners of a ski operation, bizarrely located on slopes that get enough snow for decent skiing only two years out of every five. Ordinary citizens would have launched an avalanche of complaints, too.

Charles and Carolyn Slaughter bought a cabin on leased land on Fern Ridge, near Sykes Knob, in 1987. "It's a haven," says Charles. "Going to Mount Lemmon is like having an alter-life, where you leave the one down here to go to a transcendent environment. It was simply glorious to make that change, like going to Flagstaff for a little vacation every weekend, only you can do this in an hour and 15 minutes."

The Slaughters learned on Saturday afternoon that the Aspen Fire had probably taken their cabin, robbing them of their "alter-life" for at least the next two or three years.

EVEN AFTER BOB EWELL DIED in 1988, and even after their daughters had grown up and moved away, Shirley returned to the Carter Canyon cabin every summer.

She had friends up there, human and otherwise. She loved listening to the birds every day, and remembers being scolded, face to face, by one hummingbird who thought she was too late in getting her feeders set out. The family got to know the personalities of individual squirrels, and they and the neighbors even gave nicknames to the local bears, some of whom Shirley would sometimes have to shoo away with a broom.

Shirley thought about moving into the cabin permanently, but as she approached her 70s she began to worry about her health, and in 1997, she decided it was wiser to move to Alabama to be near her daughter Elizabeth. In Alabama, she met Coy Sims, and married him three years ago. Once daughter Nancy and her family had moved back to Tucson, Shirley and Coy decided they should spend more time here, too. They'd gotten up to the cabin only a few days before the evacuation order.

They had big plans for the cabin. "That place was never really finished," Shirley says, meaning that there was no end to the new things that could be done to it. Shirley wanted to enlarge the deck, and last weekend Nancy had planned to go up with a crew to steel-brush the exterior in preparation for painting this weekend.

"It doesn't need painting now," Shirley notes, mustering a rueful smile.

Having to get out so fast, and having to share space in a neighbor's car, Shirley left behind some precious things: a little wooden nightstand her father had built in the early 1900s, some paintings done by family members, her grandmother's heavy aluminum pots and pans.

"I'd like to go up and see if those pots survived," she says, "but someone said that fire was so hot it melted the guardrail outside Summerhaven, so I don't expect to see my grandmother's pots again."

Shirley says her cabin was valued at about $150,000, but she hadn't gotten around to having it re-appraised after making some improvements, so it was probably worth more than that.

The Pima County Assessor lists $69 million in taxable property in the Summerhaven area. It's obviously in the county's best interest for people to rebuild as soon as possible; the economy is already bad, and this is a poor time for a chunk of the county tax base to go up in smoke.

Besides, Pima County taxpayers who've never set foot in the Catalinas are helping to pay to save them. In its first seven days, the Aspen Fire had covered more than 19,500 acres and fighting it had already cost $3.6 million. That financial burden is spread throughout the country. But a local firefighting effort, too, underscores the community's commitment to Mount Lemmon.

The Mount Lemmon Fire District operates on taxes from local property owners that equate to $300 a year for a $100,000 property. Mount Lemmon charges the highest taxes allowed by state law. But all Pima County property owners help subsidize the Mount Lemmon Fire District and the 16 other fire districts in the county. All property owners are charged at a rate of $5 a year for each $100,000 of taxable value. That subsidy generates more than $2.2 million to be divided among the 17 districts.

While all Pima County residents help pay for Summerhaven fire protection, Summerhaven property owners toss their own scraps to the county kitty. And the county isn't about to abandon that source of revenue.

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry has vowed that Summerhaven and other Mount Lemmon communities will rebuild, but the pace and manner of reconstruction will be tightly governed by long-ignored building codes and special attention to loss prevention.

"Mount Lemmon grew up over decades as a haphazard, slapped-together community," Huckelberry says. Homes, cabins and commercial buildings "had great difficulty meeting codes."

Rebuilding cannot begin until the fire danger is stamped out, followed by an assessment of what's left standing and an analysis, Huckelberry says, "to separate hazardous material such as asbestos that may be friable from the other debris. And in that category of debris can be dangerous things like burned or damaged trees that could collapse."

Huckelberry acknowledges that requirements to follow the codes will cause delays in reconstruction, but promises that reconstruction will eventually take place--at least on the deeded land.

The county will expedite construction plans and reviews, Huckelberry says, but only while insisting that builders understand that that codes and fire prevention rules must apply to the new work.

"We're going to look at other communities in urban forests. Los Alamos is probably the best example. Because the last thing we want is to allow rebuilding in a manner that will result in another loss," Huckelberry says.

Huckelberry, the county's top man since 1993 and a county executive for nearly 30 years, finds a parallel between the response to the Aspen Fire and the response to the October 1983 flood that devastated broad swaths of the county and took a few lives and 154 homes.

After the flood, the county stepped up efforts to restrict construction in flood-prone areas. It bought up whole ruined communities and subdivisions, and also bought up flood-prone land to keep people from building on it.

Huckelberry says the federal flood legislation of 1974 can serve as a model for rebuilding in urban forest areas now. "The whole point was to prevent repetitive loss," Huckelberry says.

So to avoid further loss in Summerhaven, reconstruction on Mount Lemmon will require proper setback, clearing of fire fuel and the use of fire-resistant building material, Huckelberry says.

There will also be a move to require more hookups into the county sewer system. That could not only reduce pollution in Sabino Creek, but provide more treated effluent that could be recycled and stored for fire control.

At a meeting one day after the fire swept through Summerhaven, residents were already asserting their rights to rebuild, requesting expedited reviews and permits from the county. In the meantime, they will be relieved of property taxes on structures from the time of the fire. Those few residents already on the sewer system also will have fees suspended.

Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll says rebuilding in the Mount Lemmon chunk of his district will proceed at a pace "that the board can respond to and that county administration will make work. It also is not just an issue for my district, but for the whole board, the state and feds."

LAST FRIDAY NIGHT, Shirley and Coy, with their family and a few hundred other Summerhaven refugees, gathered at Sabino High School to hear county, state and federal officials tell them the bad news about their homes and businesses. Larry Humphrey, Aspen Fire's incident commander, informed the assembled property owners/mourners that between the wind, steep terrain, abundance of natural kindling and lack of rain, the fire crews probably wouldn't have things under control for another hellish three weeks. "It's gonna be a long, hard-fought process," he intoned.

The same can be said of the process the residents face once the firefighters move on to the summer's next conflagration. County appraisers and insurance representatives are now sifting through the charred timber, determining what's intact and what's lost, and what it's all worth. The debris will have to be cleared and the denuded land stabilized before the summer rains wash the soil down the mountains' slopes. And somebody will have to figure out whose responsibility that will be--and who will pay for it.

Then there's the question of whether the Forest Service will allow any of the damaged cabins among the 220 on public land to be rebuilt. It quickly extended leases on land damaged in California forest fires last year, but has delayed issuing building permits there by insisting on site-by-site studies.

"I don't think they're going to be in any rush to issue building permits," says Charles Slaughter, a Mount Lemmon leaseholder. "It will be impossible to rebuild in many instances, anyway. And even if it's not impossible, it's not obvious that I would want to rebuild a cabin on a charred site. Even if it hadn't burned, the value of our cabin would have decreased by 50 percent because of the environmental change. That's going to be true of lots of property up there. We couldn't sell ours this week even if it hadn't burned.

"So we will need to find out what the physical condition of the site is, what our insurance company says, and what the Forest Service says, and how long it would take to rebuild. If the Forest Service's behavior elsewhere is any indication, it'll be a long time before they give us a permit, and I don't think we'll wait more than two years."

Shirley Ewell Sims, too, is unsure whether she'll rebuild. "Coy says that if we do, it should be concrete," she says. "But right now we're just trying to get over the shock of losing it. I'd have to be here a long time to rebuild it, and I'm 75. I may just clear it up and give Nancy and her family the lot and let them decide what to do with it."

Daughter Nancy Lindsay isn't making any plans yet. "It all depends on finances," she says. "What my daddy could build it for, doing the work himself 30 years ago, you can't touch a place for that now."

Would she even want to spend time in a scorched area? "I can't answer that until I've seen it," she says. "The whole point of going up there is to get out of the heat. You can always go up there for that, and while you're there, you can re-seed, you can re-plant, you can put in fast-growing trees."

Carolyn Slaughter is ambivalent about the presence of cabins on the mountain. "The problem with the cabins is they interrupt the forest," she says. "There is no forest where a cabin is. But if you're in the cabin with the forest around you, it's a wonderful thing, so I'm morally torn."

Carolyn is in the habit of responding to life by writing about it, and this is what she wrote last weekend about Summerhaven succumbing to the Aspen Fire:

"You could call it a little local Armageddon, a deep-cleansing. The dissolution of the cluttery little village contradicting the forest it fed on. The thinning of cabins scattered through the forest like scabs on wounds.

"But spending weekends in our cabin every summer since 1986, Charles and I have stitched the desert and the mountain together into a world--interweaving the open shining (searing) desert with the green-canopied thunderstorm-riddled forests and streams at the top of the sky ... and that world has unraveled this week.

"I grieve most of all for two trees and one silent forest slope of pines and firs and oaks that we (mis-)took for our own for a while."

Kierán Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity is far less ambivalent than Carolyn Slaughter. "Basically, cabins in the most fire-prone areas should not be re-leased," he says. "It's a threat to human life--it's not just the cabin owner, it's the firefighter whose life is in danger--and it causes tremendous management and safety problems for everybody else. So they need to step back and say we should not put houses in these dangerous places.

"Secondly, where they do continue the leases, they should make a condition of the lease that the homeowners have to fireproof their land and their home--very simple things like the roof should be made of tin, and not stacking firewood against the house. Forest Service research has shown that proper fuel reduction and fire safety within 100 yards of a house is the most effective way to reduce fire danger."

In his 1987 book about the Catalinas, Frog Mountain Blues, Charles Bowden advocated ripping out the highway, tearing out the town and cabins, healing over the ski slopes, and letting the mountains go back to being a home for things other than people.

"I haven't mellowed since then," he says. "I appreciate the agony of having your house burned to the ground, but building a house in a pine forest is like telling people you're building a house in an oil tanker. It's only a matter of time before it'll go up in flames. And that mountain was doomed because of those fuel loads."

Bowden is happy to propose his own plan for saving the Catalinas.

"The first thing is the local politicians should get federal help for instant re-seeding so we don't lose the soil and end up with a sterile mountain. If we don't re-seed, when the rains come this summer, we're going to get tremendous mudflows down Sabino Canyon and lose all the topsoil.

"The second thing is we should buy out Summerhaven. Houses shouldn't be stuck in forests, and the ground on top of a mountain shouldn't be somebody's private home, but public land. Besides, I don't think it's going to be a desirable place to live for decades, and I think insurance companies are going to be leery of insuring buildings at such exorbitant rates.

"Third, put in a shuttle bus so people won't have to go up there in their cars. That's been on the table for years, but the residents of Summerhaven were always against the shuttle because the people who own the mountain, the public, were going to come up and visit. And wouldn't it be hell if the people who settled this country before the Iowans arrived got to go to the mountain?"

Does Bowden really believe his proposals are realistic?

"In the end, it's inevitable," he declared. "Those mountains, those relics of the ice age, have more soul than anything the city or county government has ever built, or ever will. Who in the city, drunk or sober, would care if City Hall burned? And who in this city doesn't hold a tender memory of that mountain? It's a no-brainer, unless you hold elected office."

Biology professor Pyne doesn't think weeding out the settlements will make the forest any safer for the trees.

"The simplistic conclusion is that a landscape stripped of people is easy to manage because no real management is required," he says. "This, I think, has proved false. Most landscapes have evolved with the presence of people (and their burning) over thousands of years, for example, and removing people can paradoxically cause their biotic fabric to unravel. I think we have discovered that even wilderness demands intensive management, although that may mean lots of information rather than lots of axes. A compact settlement may be less intrusive than sprawl. Historically, the most intractable inhabitants are pastoralists--even a few herders can upset administrative goals over common land. Certainly having Summerhaven has complicated management of the mountain--but it is not clear that its removal would have rendered management better or simpler, just different."

Nancy Lindsay resists a total prohibition on Mount Lemmon residents. "I understand the position, because some of those cabins are really old and safety is always an issue," she says, "but I think people should be able to rebuild. Once you've been there long enough, like us, the time and the memories give you a proprietary feel for the mountains. It's just part of you, part of your family."

Pyne insists that whether the cabins go or stay, there's no simple way to protect what's left on the mountain and heal the rest. "We aren't going to cut our way out of the problem," he says. "We aren't going to burn our way out, either. We can't simply suppress it. And we can't walk away from it. What we need are mixes of practices--a fire management cocktail, if you will--adjusted to specific sites.

"The core issue, though, is that we can't agree on what we want the public lands to be. Those are matters of politics and values. So the fire issue gets hijacked to animate other agendas. Until we begin seeing the problem as fire sees it, we won't begin to cope. Fire isn't listening. It hears only fuel, wind, drought, terrain."

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