TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - After three long weeks, residents are back on Mount Lemmon tonight after the Bighorn Fire forced the area to be evacuated.
Pima County Sheriff's deputies escorted groups of full-time residents to Summerhaven then back down again.
Residents can stay on the mountain if they want to, but they must have escorts to go up and down the mountain.
It’s a big relief for those returning Tuesday, July 7, who are thankful they have a home to return to.
“I actually got out of my car and overlooked the town down here and I put my arms up and yelled woohoo! It just felt so good to be home,” said Leanne Mack, Manager of the Mt. Lemmon General Store. She spent three weeks in a hotel during the evacuation.
No structures were lost and her property was left untouched by the Bighorn Fire.
“My house smells, you know I can smell the smoke in the house,” Mack said.
But in a short walk from her home, the devastation starts to appear near the fire station.
It’s minimal compared to what could have been without the work of the firefighters.
“It is completely moonscaped so there is nothing left there and we are just so fortunate that they were able to keep that from happening all over,” Mack said.
The difference fire crews made can be seen clearly around Mike Bunch’s property. He wasn’t on the mountain when it was evacuated initially on June 16. He said he was contacted by the Forest Service who let him know they wanted to conduct a backburn.
He was shocked at first thinking that the fire was still pretty far from his property.
“But then, about 36 hours later the fire had come through my place,” Bunch said.
Crews conducted a vital back burn on June 17 that kept the flames from getting any closer. He provided KOLD News 13 with photos the Forest Service sent him the following day.
“It went completely around my place and they saved it. I’m just really, really happy with what they did. Just a phenomenal job, it was a tough fire,” Bunch said.
It was a tough fight as well to keep the community safe. It’s why Mack and Bunch among many others can’t say thank you enough.
“Honestly there are just no words to tell them how thankful and the hard work that they put into saving this mountain and this community,” Mack said.
Thankful even now as they clean away the ash and things left behind, thankful there is even something left to return to.
“We’re all eager to get up and enjoy each other and now we just have to get through this COVID,” Mack joked.