Buildings Lost in Kitt Peak Blaze

Kitt

The latest reports from the Kitt Peak Observatory, 55 miles Southwest of Tucson, Arizona, indicate that the Contreras wildfire jumped the ridge Friday night and burned through the telescope complex. Damage reports are limited but it has been disclosed that “four non-scientific buildings” were lost overnight. “Early indications show other buildings on the property didn’t appear to be damaged.

Kitt Peak scorched overnight

According to Buell T. Jannuzi, who leads the Department of Astronomy at the University of Arizona, this “is the most threatening fire I can remember at Kitt Peak in the last 25 years.” The fire, he’s relieved to report, “didn’t appear to have damaged the telescope and science buildings at the observatory.

He also noted, “a closer examination of the site hadn’t yet been made due to safety concerns.” The blaze reached the outskirts of the observatory early Friday.

If conditions permit safe entry to the area on Saturday, crews are hoping to assess the damage. Kitt Peak National Observatory is operated by NOIRLab. That’s the National Science Foundation’s center for ground-based optical-infrared astronomy.

Ever since 1962, UofA had a telescope at the site. One of many. Locals like to affectionately call it “telescope national forest” because it has more instruments than they have trees around there.

This particular fire was sparked by lightning back on June 11. Wind and dry conditions fanned the flames away from the remote ridge overlooking the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation. Earlier this week it became clear that Kitt Peak staff had to be evacuated.

As of Saturday, June 18, the inferno has grown to 27 square miles (71 kilometers) in size. It’s blazing totally out of control with “zero containment.

A heroic effort

Everyone is convinced that no matter what damage was done Friday night, it would have been a whole lot worse without the heroic efforts of firefighters as the flames approached.

The complex houses “more than twenty optical and two radio telescopes,” making it “one of the largest gatherings of astronomical instruments in the northern hemisphere.” Crews battled across the top of Kitt Peak “with multiple engines” through the night “to defend the observatory’s buildings.

In the day, firefighters have been bombing the area with fire retardant. Just before the fire jumped the ridge, crews had managed to successfully clear “a line of trees and brush” below Kitt Peak’s southern ridge.

Kitt

Science fans all freaked out when the cameras cut out but that was because power was shut off, to prevent accidental sparks.

Luckily, before the blaze made it to the top of the mountain, Kitt Peak astronomers lovingly covered all the key instruments in protective wraps and covers.

That will at least shield the sensitive optics from smoke and ash in the air. Local wildlife is in frantic migration as fire crews work hard to save nearby Elkhorn Ranch. The nearby Tohono O’odham community of Pan Tak was also evacuated from an abundance of caution.

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