As the fire on Mount Lemmon raged through the tiny mountaintop hamlets of Summerhaven and Loma Linda last week, the Northwest community below readily opened its arms and hearts to the displaced.
Nowhere was this more obvious than beneath Pusch Ridge in Oro Valley, where the ominous plume of smoke rising from beyond the front range of the Santa Catalina Mountains provided a constant reminder of the devastation at hand.
There, nestled safely beneath the growing conflagration, the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf and Tennis Resort, 10000 N. Oracle Road, was transformed into compassion central for the dazed refugees from the mountain.
As the wildfire quicklygrew to disaster proportion, the hotel would open its doors to the evacuees, the Red Cross and other disaster relief agencies, and the media scrum that descended on the Hilton for a story that quickly went national.
The elegant resort became host to a crisis. It filled 20 of its rooms with more than 50 residents displaced by the fire, providing food, shelter and shoulders to cry on free of charge.
The U.S Forest Service set up a team there to provide the folks from Mount Lemmon what they craved most - information about the path of the fire that was threatening their homes, belongings and the memories of living in the idyllic village that crowned the Santa Catalinas.
The Red Cross arrived, providing crisis counseling and badly needed supplies. Dollies loaded with kitty litter and pet food from the Humane Society rolled across the hotel's carpet to provide for the residents' pets. Out front, where the satellite trucks of the media filled the flower-lined driveway of the Hilton, officers from the Oro Valley Police Department came by periodically, offering their help in controlling the traffic.
"Where would we be without the Red Cross, the hotel?" asked Summerhaven resident Bonnie Raio June 19, the day she learned the fire had broken through the last line of defense at Marshall Gulch and had begun its unstoppable march toward her home.
For Steve Dennis, the Hilton's resident manager, it began two days before. He ate lunch as usual on the patio of his hotel's restaurant. While enjoying his meal, he looked up from the northeast-facing patio and saw the smoke curling above the peak.
Within a few hours, the news reports were everywhere: The Aspen Fire was threatening Summerhaven. The evacuation had begun.
"We did what anyone would do: Prayed, hoped that everyone was all right," Dennis said. "Then we made ourselves available, opened our arms."
From behind the front desk, Dennis retold the story two days later amid constant interruptions. It was June 19, the day that the residents would learn the winds had whipped up unexpectedly and the fire could not be stopped. The exhausted fire crews had been pulled off the last line at the gulch, and the hotel phone was busy with calls to and from crisis counselors and chaplains. Evacuees wandered in and out of the hotel. A desperate search was made for yet another box of tissues.
An air of sadness intersperced with moments of alarm dominated the lobby of the hotel. Without the uniforms or name tags, it was difficult to distinguish between the Hilton's staff and their unexpected guests. They all wore somber faces as the sound of crying and anguished cell phone conversations echoed from the hallways. The hastily packed backpacks scattered about were more prevalent than the luggage of the resort's seasonal guests.
The staff did their best to add a bit of cheer to the evacuees stay. All the facilities were open to them. Breakfast was provided in the Sundance Cafe, and lunch and dinner was shared with employees in the staff lounge - all free of charge. But the movies shown by the pool served only as a temporary salve to the residents, whose minds returned repeatedly to the top of the burning mountain.
Dennis instantly became more than a hotel manager. He was thrown unexpectedly into the role of crisis counselor, disaster relief coordinator and the focal point for the sadness that reigned.
"I'm a human being," Dennis said, his shoulder smeared with the make up of a Summerhaven resident. "And I'd be hard-pressed not to act like one in the face of such a horrible mess."
Tears had welled in his eyes when he first told the residents their homes lay in the path of destruction. They welled again that Thursday when he led the evacuees from their temporary sanctuary in a ballroom where they had just held a prayer service to the conference room next door.
The Forest Service's crisis management team was there, surrounded by the lights and cameras of the media. The residents from the mountain filed in, shooting worried glances at the map board and the television in the background that broadcast the surreal scenes of flames consuming their homes.
Dennis somberly introduced the members of the team, then quietly took his seat as the residents' worst fears were confirmed.
"At 1:40 p.m. today the winds rose to 40-miles-per hour and the crews were pulled back from the last line at Marshall Gulch," Jonetta Holt, a Forest Service fire information specialist told the evacuees. "Structures have been lost, and although we know you are desperate for information, we do not have a complete assessment yet …"
The news seared through the room and the evacuees, some cuddling babies, others holding cherished pets, were left to absorb the news as best they could. A few of the neighbors bore stoic smiles, but many more simply sobbed.
As the news filtered in slowly in the course of the week, some would learn their homes were unscathed, while others would lose everything.
Immediately after the June 19 prayer service, Summerhaven resident Jesse Shaver circulated a single page of hotel stationary among the evacuees so they could sign their thanks to the Hilton, Red Cross and others who had helped them. The piece of paper was filled with hearts, crosses and effusive thanks to the people who had stepped up in a time of need.
"They have all just been wonderful to us. We're a really close community up there. Being here at the hotel gave us the chance to be together through this. We're very, very thankful," Shaver said.
An obviously exhausted Dennis, taking a break from the sadness amid the opulence Thursday, summed it up in simple fashion.
"People just shouldn't have to feel alone right now," he said.
HOW TO HELP
Agencies across the metropolitan region and in the Northwest are accepting donations for the families displaced by the Aspen Fire and for the firefighters battling the blaze. Below is information about where to take donations and what supplies are needed. The most versatile donation is cash, said the Red Cross.
Aspen Fire Information Hotline
Rural/Metro Fire Department
Accepting donations of bottled water, sports drinks, energy bars, and personal care products (such as soap, toothpaste, etc.) at all locations.
4601 E. Broadway Blvd.
Accepting Financial Donations only. Not equipped to accept other kinds of donations. Blood is also helpful, but not needed for this particular fire. To set up an appointment for blood donation: 917-2820.
Humane Society of Southern Arizona
3450 N. Kelvin Blvd.
9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mon- Fri
Accepting online payment on website for pet boarding and feeding. Donations are also accepted over the phone or at their office.
320 S. Wilmot Road (behind Park Place)
9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mon- Fri
Accepting donations of water, pet food, work gloves, respirators and blankets.
Tucson Association of Realtors
1622 North Swan
9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mon- Fri
Accepting financial donations or donations of water, beds, small appliances, dishes, personal care products and other household/ daily use items.
Naughton's Plumbing and Heating
7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mon- Fri
1140 W. Prince
4226 S. 6th Ave.
6062 E. Speedway
8190 E. 22 Street
Accepting donations of bottled water, sports drinks, healthy snacks, sunscreen and personal care products at any of the locations listed.
Boy Scouts of Southern Arizona
Girl Scouts of Southern Arizona
Financial Donations can be wired to:
Bank of America
KMXZ FM 94.9
Lemonade Stand set up in front of radio station at 3438 N. Country Club. Accepting donations for the Red Cross. In return, donors receive some lemonade and meet radio personalities.