Arizona Wildfire Reaches Kitt Peak National Observatory, Telescopes Possibly Damaged


Fire began approaching Kitt Peak Thursday night.

Fire began approaching Kitt Peak Thursday night.
Image: KPNO / NOIRLab / NSF / AURA

The Contreras Fire, which has been raging through the Arizona mountains since last week, has reached Kitt Peak National Observatory, threatening the site’s telescopes.

Kitt Peak National Observatory is an astronomical research facility located on the land of the Tohono O’odham Nation in the mountains of Tuscon, Arizona, and the observatory is run by the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab — the National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory. Wildfires have been burning across the American Southwest recently, and the Contreras Fire has made its way to the observatory. NOIRLab said in a press release that the fire started as a lightning strike, while the mountainous terrain and high winds in the area have made firefighting difficult. According to the Arizona Emergency Information Networkthe Contreras Fire has scorched nearly 11,500 acres as of June 16 with no signs of slowing.

Part of the Contreras Fire burning on the slopes of the Kitt Peak mountain on early morning June 17. In the foreground NRAO's Very Long Baseline Array Dish is seen.

Part of the Contreras Fire burning on the slopes of the Kitt Peak mountain on early morning June 17. In the foreground NRAO’s Very Long Baseline Array Dish is seen.
Image: KPNO / NOIRLab / NSF / AURA

“The Contreras Fire reached the Observatory early Friday morning. We are working with firefighters at the site to assess possible damage, ”the observatory tweeted today. “NSF’s NOIRLab is deeply grateful to the firefighters working at the site and for the support of the Tohono O’odham community at this challenging time. Safety remains our top priority. ”

According to the observatory’s press release, areas of dry brush and trees were cleared at the southern ridge of the mountain in order to prevent the fire from spreading up towards the facility. Likewise, planes dropped fire-retardant on the area in the hope of protecting the observatory, which was founded in 1958, and power was shutoff this morning. Fire crested the southwest ridge of the mountain at 2 am MST, threatening four telescopes: the Hiltner 2.4-meter Telescope, the McGraw-Hill 1.3-meter Telescope, the Very Long Baseline Array Dish, and the UArizona 12-meter Telescope. The latter is operated by the University of Arizona and is part of the Event Horizon Telescope, which produced the first image of a black hole.

Kitt Peak National Observatory has been studying the night sky since 1958.

Kitt Peak National Observatory has been studying the night sky since 1958.
Image: NOIRLab / KPNO / NSF / AURA / P. Marenfeld

It’s already a destructive wildfire season, and this scientific research station may be the newest casualty. Fires earlier this month in Greece threatened suburbs of Athens, while the Calf Canyon / Hermits Peak fire became the largest fire in New Mexico history in May.





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