TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) — Wildfires driven by high wind, desert heat, and low humidity forced scores of people from their homes Tuesday in southern and central Arizona, including the entire mountaintop community of Summerhaven, where hundreds of homes burned in a wildfire 17 years ago this month.
“If you are receiving this message, EVACUATE NOW,” the Pima County Sheriff’s Department said in a 1:30 p.m. emergency alert sent to residents and posted on social media. “Safely move south on Catalina Highway and leave the mountain. Do not delay leaving the area.”
Summerhaven, where only a few dozen people live permanently at the end of a 25-mile, winding two-lane highway that offers the only escape route, also includes hundreds of vacation homes and the southernmost ski hill in the United States. More than 200 homes burned in the Aspen Fire, which started June 17, 2003, and eventually charred 85,000 acres in the Coronado National Forest.
By Tuesday evening the Bighorn Fire had burned through 15,805 acres and was 40% contained. Lightning sparked the blaze June 5, and the danger has since toggled between the north face of the Santa Catalina Mountains near the towns of Oracle and Catalina and the south side near Tucson. Wind pushed the flames toward Summerhaven Tuesday, according to Bighorn Fire information officer Cindy Wolfe.
“Because the winds were up to 35 mph, the fire was really pushed to the east,” she said, adding that fire officials will hold a virtual town hall meeting for residents Tuesday night.
Tuesday’s evacuation order also included Mt. Bigelow, a popular dispersed camping area that is home to hundreds of millions of dollars worth of communication equipment that transmits signals over the mountain range. Wolfe did not know how many residents had been evacuated, she said.
Last Thursday, about 300 homes on the southern flank of the range, on the northern edge of Tucson, were evacuated while crews lit a “back burn” to keep flames from the upscale homes in some of the city’s most upscale neighborhoods. By Friday, those residents were allowed to return.
Air takers could be seen all week swooping down on the rugged terrain of the Bighorn Fire, dropping hundreds of loads of orange fire-retardant slurry. The north and south sides of the mountain range were striped with orange blotches visible 10 miles away.
Meanwhile Tuesday in Tonto National Forest — 100 miles north of Tucson and 50 miles west of Phoenix — the Bush Fire forced dozens to evacuate, including about 20 from their homes in Sunflower and an unknown number from Apache Lake, a popular recreation area for Phoenix residents, Bush Fire information officer Dee Hines said.
That human-caused fire started Saturday and had burned 64,513 acres by Tuesday afternoon. It was 0% contained and was burning in varied terrain from the Sonoran Desert floor at approximately 2,000 feet elevation up to Ponderosa pines at more than 7,000 feet, Hines said.
“It’s just about everything Arizona has to offer,” he said, adding that there is no projection on when the fire might be contained or when residents might be able to return to their homes. “As long as these winds keep going, we will continue to expect extreme fire behavior.”
The National Weather Service forecast calls for temperatures above 100 degrees near both fires all week with steady winds and humidity below 20%. No rain is in the forecast, but dry thunderstorms are expected to spawn lightning in some areas, increasing the risk for more fires.