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Wildfire near Kitt Peak explodes, doubling in size to 11,800 acres
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Wildfire near Kitt Peak explodes, doubling in size to 11,800 acres

Staff evacuated as Conteras Fire nears Southern Arizona observatory

  • A fire tornado forms as part of the Conteras Fire, a wildfire that has burned nearly 11,500 acres near the Baboquivari Mountains and Kitt Peak Observatory.
    Wade Allen/BIAA fire tornado forms as part of the Conteras Fire, a wildfire that has burned nearly 11,500 acres near the Baboquivari Mountains and Kitt Peak Observatory.

A wildfire burning along remote ridges in the Baboquivari Mountain range doubled in size Thursday, consuming nearly 6,000 more acres of grass and brush in steep and rugged terrain in the desert southwest of Tucson.

Officials warned high temperatures, along with heavy smoke and high winds will make it difficult to attack the Conteras Fire, burning just north of Baboquivari Peak about 20 miles east of Sells, Ariz., on the Tohono O'odham Nation. The fire is 1.5 miles from Kitt Peak National Observatory forcing its evacuation, the observatory posted on Facebook.

Started by lightning, the fire began Saturday and burned around 80 acres. By Wednesday, officials estimated the fire grew to 5,574 acres through the night and into the morning, moving through "drought-stressed vegetation." On Thursday, the fire grew to an estimated 11,849 acres, officials said.

While air tankers were available to staunch the fire, resources had "limited success due to smoke in the area," officials said, and fire retardant "has had limited success due to extremely dry fuels and high winds." On Thursday, they said to expect breezy winds with gusts up to 20 miles per hour.

Nearly 300 people are assigned to the fire, which is managed by the Papago Agency, part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Sells.

Critical fire weather remains in the region, officials said. While they hoped moisture will arrive by Friday, there's a chance of thunderstorms "with limited moisture expected, frequent lightning and gusty, erratic winds."

Smoke from the fire is visible from Sells and Three Points, and the wildfire has contributed to poor air quality in Tucson.

Firefighters will "scout and identify potential holding features such as roads, trail systems and natural barriers such as rock outcroppings and vegetation breaks," to fight the fire. However, these efforts may be limited because of high temperatures.

"The hottest temperatures of the year are expected," for Thursday, "which will slow tactical efforts on the ground, considering emergency responder safety."

Because of the terrain, officials said the fire is being managed in two divisions, north and south. Ground crews, as well as engines and water tenders, as well as structure protection divisions have been assigned to defend Kitt Peak Observatory to the north, and Elkhorn Ranch to the south.

A webcam looking south from Kitt Peak's four-meter telescope showed smoke billowing up above the mountain peak.

The fire is about 1.5 miles from Kitt Peak, and around one-quarter mile from the Elkhorn Ranch. Fire crews will work to build fire-lines to protect the ranch's southern flank, and add "contingency lines" for "firefighter safety."

"Firefighter and public safety remain top priority, as well as providing protection and minimizing impacts to cultural, heritage, natural resources and wildlife," officials said.

The Conteras Fire is one of two major fires burning in Southern Arizona.

Near Nogales, the Tonto Canyon Fire has burned more than 6,200 acres. On Thursday, officials said the Tonto Canyon Fire was about 22 percent contained, as it continues to creep through tall grass and brush in the Pajarita Wilderness.

Four other fires have already burned in southern Arizona since the beginning of the year, consuming thousands of acres of wilderness. And, two wildfires are burning just over Arizona's border with New Mexico, consuming more than 8,000 acres of grass and brush.

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