Mt. Lemmon firefighters, residents reflect on Aspen Fire 15 years later

Published: Jun. 19, 2018 at 10:45 PM MST|Updated: Jun. 20, 2018 at 5:28 AM MST
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SUMMERHAVEN, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Sunday, June 17, 2018, marked 15 years since the Aspen Fire began on Mt. Lemmon.

As former Mt. Lemmon Assistant Fire Chief Harry Findysz walks around Carter Canyon, just above the town of Summerhaven, he says he remembers the devastating Aspen Fire like it was yesterday.

"Trees were exploding like they were toothpicks," says Findysz, who now owns a video production company in Tucson. "Not joking, branches four, five, six feet, were showering down on us, and propane tanks were exploding like missiles."

Findysz was having dinner with former fire Chief Dean Marinella at the Alpine Lodge when they first got the call.

"We watched the fire come over the ridge and we watched branches burning off trees like they were twigs. We went around and put out as many fires as we could until we ran out of water."

"Initially it was a shock, we didn't want to believe it was as bad as it was," says Dan Leade, a fire captain for Mt. Lemmon Fire. He fought the fire for a month straight, watching the fire swallow tress and everything else in its path.

"The amazing thing is when you look across the canyons now, that was something that you didn't use to have, you were staring at 60 to 80 foot Ponderosa trees that no longer exist."

The Aspen Fire burned nearly 85,000 acres, destroying 340 buildings and changing the identity of Summerhaven.

"I don't think any of us thought that anything would burn down," says Hillary Ingalls, who was 11 years old when the fire hi her town. "That it happened so quickly so was huge surprise to anyone."

She has worked at the Cookie Cabin downtown for 8 years, and says the fire changed her town forever.

"It was a lot more forresty back then, it was a lot less corporate, the cabins were all really, really, cute instead of these huge mansions. So it was just a really sweet area."

The badly scarred forest atop the mountain is beginning to come back, but officials say it will be more than a century for the forest to fully recover.

Officials believe the Aspen Fire was human-caused, but no one has ever been charged for starting the fire.

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