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Wildfire blazes through another 4,200 acres near Kitt Peak, burned areas near Pan Tak village
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Wildfire blazes through another 4,200 acres near Kitt Peak, burned areas near Pan Tak village

Conteras Fire still 50% contained, has burned almost 30k acres southwest of Tucson

  • The Contreras Fire on Monday.
    inciwebThe Contreras Fire on Monday.
  • A map of the Contreras Fire, released Wednesday morning.
  • 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 nearly 30,000 acres southwest of Tucson over the past week, with crews still working to protect Kitt Peak National Observatory and the blaze burning in contained areas near the evacuated village of Pan Tak.

Assessments of damage to scientific instruments at the observatory are "ongoing," officials said. Four buildings atop the peak were burned in the fire, including two outbuildings, a dormitory and a vacant residence.

Firefighters are working to reinforce containment lines, and burning pockets of vegetation inside those areas to stall the blaze from spreading further. "As this work occurs, the fire's acreage will increase; however, the fire's footprint will change very little," officials said Wednesday. "Very little perimeter growth was detected," on Tuesday.

A "significant reduction in fire behavior" was expected over the next day, as about 440 members of fire crews continued to work the blaze, which remains about 50% contained.

Increased humidity and the possibility of rain from thunderstorms should reduce the rate of the fire's spread, they said.

"Threats to Kitt Peak Observatory, Pan Tak and Hayhook Estates are expected to be significantly reduced over the next 36 hours as interior vegetation to the north and east burn out," fire officials said. "Flash flooding is a concern with periods of intense rainfall."

"Aircraft will be available to support ground crews working to reduce fire behavior on slopes below Kitt Peak. This work is key in protecting utility corridors that provide power" to the observatory, officials said.

"On top of Kitt Peak within the observatory property, structure protection crews will continue looking for and extinguishing heat," they said. "Water tenders will also replenish a pond that served as a critical water source for firefighting operations early in the fire."

"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, officials said earlier.

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 30,000 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 29,000 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 last 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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