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Contreras Fire continues to burn near Kitt Peak, crews still defending observatory
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Contreras Fire continues to burn near Kitt Peak, crews still defending observatory

Wildfire now 50% contained, has burned almost 25k acres southwest of Tucson

  • The Contreras Fire on Monday.
    inciwebThe Contreras Fire on Monday.
  • A map of the Contreras Fire, released Tuesday morning.
  • Smoke from the blaze at Kitt Peak, seen Friday.
    InciwebSmoke from the blaze at Kitt Peak, seen Friday.
  • 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 has burned thousands more acres in rough terrain the past several days, and officials at Kitt Peak National Observatory say assessing any damage to scientific instruments will be a priority. The village of Pan Tak near the base of the mountain also remains evacuated.

"Moderate fire behavior" was expected Tuesday, as about 430 members of fire crews continued to work the blaze, which is now about 50% contained. "Most fire activity is expected to occur within the interior of completed control lines south of Highway 86 and west of Sasabe Road (west of Pan Tak and the Coyote Mountain Wilderness)," officials said.

While increased humidity and the possibility of rain should reduce the rate of the fire's spread, lightning strikes from afternoon thunderstorms could spark new fires in the area, officials said.

"We still have an entire village under evacuation. Some of the individuals who are on the nation who have had some mobility concerns were evacuated early on," Pima County Administrator Jan Lesher told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday morning. "The telescopes remain safe at this point."

The southern part of the fire area is in "monitor status," as that part of the blaze has mostly burned out.

"Shifting weather patterns will bring short, erratic wind gusts, potentially pushing the fire into open grasses and brush in the lower elevations and flats where fire is more easily accessible and defendable," officials said. "On Kitt Peak, mop-up and assessment of building and scientific structures will be the priority."

The Contreras Fire burned several structures atop Kitt Peak early Friday. Observatory officials have not yet been able to assess if any instruments were seriously damaged, although scientific facilities appear intact.

By Sunday morning, the wildfire had burned 18,843 acres, after being sparked by lightning last weekend. Since, it has neared 25,000 acres burned, with the fire continuing to wrap around the northern reaches of Kitt Peak.

The blaze topped the summit of the mountain 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 "vacant house," 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.

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 25,000 acres of "drought-stressed" grass and brush in largely steep and rugged terrain in the desert southwest of Tucson. By last Wednesday, the fire had grown to 5,574 acres, but on Thursday the fire exploded and doubled in size, driven by winds and heat. It has continued to burn several thousand acres per day.

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 in 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.

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

Near Nogales, the Tonto Canyon Fire has burned more than 9,400 acres in the United States, and 3,000 acres in Mexico. Officials said they were continuing to mop up pockets of fire there, but that the blaze had mostly burned itself out since the weekend.

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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