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Fire crews succesfully defend observatory as wildfire tops Kitt Peak summit

Fire crews succesfully defend observatory as wildfire tops Kitt Peak summit

Contreras Fire forces Pan Tak community to evacuate

  • An image from a webcam at Kitt Peak National Observatory
    KPNOAn image from a webcam at Kitt Peak National Observatory
  • An image from a webcam at Kitt Peak National Observatory
    KPNOAn image from a webcam at Kitt Peak National 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.

The Contreras wildfire topped the summit of Kitt Peak early Friday morning and breached the main road, however fire crews were able to defend the observatory overnight.

Started by lightning just north of Baboquivari Peak on Saturday, the Conteras Fire has consumed more than 11,500 acres of "drought-stressed" grass and brush in largely steep and rugged terrain in the desert southwest of Tucson. On Wednesday, the fire grew to 5,574 acres, but on Thursday driven by winds and heat, the fire exploded and doubled in size.

Around 2 a.m., firefighters engaged the fire as it topped the summit, breaching Kitt Peak Road and threatening Kitt Peak National Observatory. Fire officials said dense shrubs helped the fire quickly climb up the mountain's slopes. The fire's progress also forced the evacuation of about 10 homes Pan Tak, a small community on the Tohono O'odham Nation about one mile south of Ajo Highway, and four miles from Kitt Peak, in the pre-dawn hours.

Brian Pisarek, the incident team commander for the Eastern Area of the fire, thanked community members in Pan Tak for "forethought and successful planning efforts" to protect residents in and around the area.

Early Friday morning, high temperatures helped the fire make a "big push up the hill to the observatory," said Clark McCreedy, the spokesman for the Eastern Arizona Incident Management Team.

To defend the observatory, fire officials made the decision to send two hotshot crews in their vehicles onto the Kitt Peak campus, where they began "the hard work" of structure protection.

"This is not normal," McCreedy said, adding officials hadn't anticipated doing night operations, but considering the risk to Kitt Peak, "the call was made to put those folks on the ground at that hour."

The cloud cover on Friday was welcome, because it "always helps to moderate fire behavior," he said. And, lower temperatures brought "a little relief today."

More than 300 firefighters were attacking the fire, backed by 12 engines, and five water-tender trucks. In addition, five helicopters have been added to support fire suppression efforts. Additional crews are expected to arrive Friday to help the effort, which is managed by the Papago Agency, part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Sells.

While air tankers were available on Thursday to fight the fire, officials said they had  "limited success due to smoke in the area," and fire retardant "had limited success due to extremely dry fuels and high winds."

In a statement, NOIRLabs, which manages Kitt Peak Observatory for the National Science Foundation, said a crew of firefighters are working on the summit with multiple engines. Hydrants have been tested, and fire hoses deployed to defend the observatory's buildings, they said, adding firefighters are dropping "large amounts" of fire retardant on the southern end of the observatory in an effort to slow the fire's advance.

On Thursday, firefighters cleared a line of trees and brush below the peak's southern ridge, an effort that was "mostly complete" by the evening, said NOIRLabs. Firefighters also cleared the area around individual domes, as well around "critical infrastructure," and around flammable propane tanks.  In some places, ground crews started backfires to create fuel breaks, officials said.

Firefighters are continuing to remove brush on the slopes, and have spotters watching for hot-spots.

Firefighters will continue to allow the western flank to burn because it "makes no sense to put crews on the ground" there, McCreedy said. "We're essentially allowing the fire to creep down the slope, against the force of the wind," he said, adding that people will attack the fire on flat ground.

A webcam looking south from Kitt Peak's four-meter telescope showed smoke billowing up above the mountain peak, however, on Friday all the cameras were down after power to the observatory was cut off to "mitigate unintentional sparking."

NOIRLabs officials added that "key instruments" were covered with protective wraps, and the optics on the large telescopes were covered to protect them from smoke and falling ash.

"The NOIRLab leadership is closely monitoring this event and will continue making the necessary decisions to keep staff safe, and protect the facilities as much as possible," officials said. "Safety remains our top priority. We are grateful to the firefighters working hard on the mountain."

On the south flank of the fire near Elkhorn Ranch, structure protection crews were setting up fire control lines and sprinkler systems to defend the ranch and visitors, officials said. A 40-acre spot fire was contained and firefighters will continue to monitor and conduct "mop-up operations" as needed.

Along the fire's western edges, firefighters are actively monitoring the fire, but are waiting for it to get to "more favorable" terrain were the it can be "engaged more effectively and safely."

"It's not like what we have to the north or south, the circumstances are allowing us to do this," McCreedy said. "It's safer and better."

He added that "good pre-work by local agencies and tribal nation" and ranches made it easier to fight the fire. He praised the local agencies for setting up evacuation plans, and conducting pre-notifications. "We were set up for success," he said. "We were really well-prepared, and it's important during that period of transition from one team to another. If you don't have that cohesion, it's hard to move over, but we were really well prepared to make a great handoff."

"We've had pretty good transition, and great cooperation. Hats off to local folks who have helped us," he said.

High heat limited firefighting efforts on Thursday, however temperatures are expected to be lower on Friday, and a chance of rain in the afternoon and into the weekend is expected to slow the fire's growth, officials said. They warned, however, that "critical" fire weather remains in the area, and there is a potential for frequent lightning and "gusty, erratic winds."

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

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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