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Mt. Lemmon firefighters, residents reflect on 19th anniversary of Aspen Fire

Memories of the Aspen Fire 19 years later
Published: Jun. 17, 2022 at 5:46 AM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - The Aspen Fire sparked on Mt. Lemmon 19 years ago today, eventually tearing through the Summerhaven community. The nearly 85,000-acre fire destroyed 340 buildings, leaving hundreds of families in ashes and forever changing the Summerhaven so many once loved and knew.

Leigh Anne Thrasher, Aspen Fire Survivor said she lost everything in the fire and had to start all over. She said the tragedy strengthened the community and brought everyone together.

“It was truly tragic, but the whole community grieved for one another,” Thrasher said.

The community looks a lot different 19 years later. Buildings are being built instead of burning down. Fire survivors said they would never live somewhere else, but know that living among the trees comes with a risk. Just one spark and they could lose everything once again.

“We saw that cloud that came up and we knew we were burned, the community was burned,” said Thrasher as she reflected on the horrific day.

Hitch Paprocki, a loyal visitor of Summerhaven, said it all happened so fast. One minute the town was being evacuated and he said it seemed like a blink of an eye before everything burned.

“I was not really shocked because I moved here in 1976, and as soon as I moved here I came up every weekend and there were fires,” Paprocki said. “This place burned down, and that hotel burned down and that burned down and they just rebuild.”

Despite the new buildings and how quickly the community bounced back, Mt. Lemmon Fire Captain Dan Leade wants people to be careful and understand how quickly fires could start all over.

“We’re getting closer and closer to an annual fire season. We’re just seeing the weather conditions and fuel loading and people moving into the wildland interface that’s increasing the potential for fires in our local communities,” Leade said.

The Department of Forestry said the majority of all wildland fires in Arizona are caused by people.

Leade said the community can be the difference.

The people who live on the mountain say they pray every day another wildfire isn’t in their summer plans.

“It was interesting how quickly everything grew back to where it was really nice,” Paprocki said.

Thrasher said after finding a cross made out of burned window pane in her house, she knew it was a sign from God that everything was going to be OK.

“God always exchanges beauty for ashes. I think that’s what’s happened up here. God has exchanged beauty for ashes and we’re just going to get better and better and better,” Thrasher said.

In order for things to get better, we all need to do our part to follow those fire restrictions. 9 out of 10 wildfires in Arizona happen because of someone not following the rules or being careless.

Most of the state is in Stage 2 fire restrictions. That means no campfires or flame grilling is allowed.

For a full risk of restrictions click here.

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