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Kitt Peak buildings destroyed by wildfire, damage to observatory instruments still unclear
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Kitt Peak buildings destroyed by wildfire, damage to observatory instruments still unclear

Contreras Fire now 40% contained, has burned almost 20k acres southwest of Tucson

  • Smoke from the blaze at Kitt Peak, seen Friday.
    InciwebSmoke from the blaze at Kitt Peak, seen Friday.
  • Engine 1601 ASD Firefigher Victoria
  • 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 Fire burned several structures atop Kitt Peak early Friday, and continued to advance through thousands of acres of rough terrain this weekend. Observatory officials have not yet been able to assess if any instruments were damaged, although scientific facilities appear intact.

By Sunday morning, the wildfire had burned 18,843 acres, after being sparked by lightning last weekend.

The blaze topped the summit of Kitt Peak early Friday morning and breached the main road, however fire crews were able to defend Kitt Peak National Observatory overnight, officials said.

Two outbuildings at the observatory, along with a dormitory and a residence, were destroyed by the fire. At one point, firefighters at the observatory were cut off as the fire blazed on both sides of the road up the mountain.

"Scientific facilities and instrumentation appear intact, assessments of damage to instrumentation will begin once conditions allow for safe entry into the area," officials said.

The village of Pan Tak, near the base of the mountain, was evacuated around 4 a.m. Friday as the flames approached.

Started by lightning just north of Baboquivari Peak last Saturday, the Conteras Fire has consumed nearly 20,000 acres of "drought-stressed" grass and brush in largely steep and rugged terrain in the desert southwest of Tucson. By Wednesday, the fire had grown to 5,574 acres, but on Thursday the fire exploded and doubled in size, driven by winds and heat.

Around 2 a.m. Friday, firefighters engaged the fire as it topped the summit, breaching Kitt Peak Road and threatening the 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."

More than 350 firefighters were attacking the fire this weekend, backed by 10 engines, and five water-tender trucks. In addition, seven helicopters have been added to support fire suppression efforts. The effort to stem the fire is being 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."

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 said 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."

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 9,400 acres. On Sunday, officials said the Tonto Canyon Fire was about 60 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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