The Contreras fire has threatened a historic observatory in southern Arizona.

Kitt Peak fire
Fire climbed on the slopes of Kitt Peak on the evening of June 16, 2022.
KPNO / NOIRLab / NSF / Aura

Wildfires and astronomical observatories have two things in common: they both like dry conditions and mountaintops. This was certainly true in the Quinlan Mountains in southern Arizona, where firefighters have been working to contain the Contreras fire that recently threatened the Kitt Peak National Observatory. The fire is still burning, impacting the surrounding communities of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

Webcams on Kitt Peak were livecasting the approach of the Contreras fire; this timelapse goes from June 15th to June 17th.
KPNO / NOIRLab / NSF / AURA

The Contreras fire started on June 11th and has since burned more than 27,000 acres as of the morning of June 22nd. The National Optical-Infrared Research Laboratory (NOIRLab) has been maintaining a blog with updates on the fire, alongside tweets from Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO; @KittPeakNatObs)

Aerial and ground crews successfully held the line around the observatory this past weekend. Michelle Edwards, the associate director of KPNO and safety manager Joe Davis, who were able to view the outside of the structures at the peak, reported that “all physical scientific observatory structures are still standing.” However, four non-science buildings were lost in the fire.

The so-far minimal damage comes as welcome news after tense moments on Saturday, June 18th, when areas very near the iconic McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope and the large WIYN 3.5-meter Telescope were reported as active fire zones.

Fire Kitt Peak
Fire burned near the Nicholas U. Mayall 4-meter Telescope on Thursday, June 16th.
KPNO / NOIRLab / NSF / Aura

The Eastern Area Incident Management Team reports that the fire is now 50% contained, with the fire on the eastern flank of on Kitt Peak Observatory complex controlled. The team expects to have the northern flank of the fire controlled by later today.

“It's much better, but KPNO is still evacuated with restricted access because the danger is not completely over yet,” says Shari Lifson (Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy). “Because of that, our teams have not been granted access to assess the damage to any of the telescopes. We will have a much better understanding of the full extent of the damage in coming weeks. All we know right now is that seems as if the prior assessment that all of the domes and other scientific structures are intact is correct.”

Located 55 miles southwest of Tucson, Kitt Peak was established in 1958, and currently hosts more than 20 optical telescopes and two radio dishes. The team for the Dark Energy Survey Instrument, which uses the Mayall 4-meter telescope at the observatory, expressed their gratitude to teams fighting the fire:

Though mountain fires are part of the Arizona landscape, the Contreras fire is one of the worst ones for Kitt Peak in recent memory. Observatories under fire threat in recent years have included Lick Observatory, in southern California, and Mount Wilson Observatory, northeast of Los Angeles.

Fire response
The firefighting effort heads up the road to Kitt Peak on the evening of Wednesday, June 15th.
KPNO / NOIRLab / NSF / AURA

One of the worst fires to hit the international astronomical community was the fire that demolished the Mount Stromlo Observatory in Australia in 2003. That particular wildfire swept quickly up the mountain, giving the staff less than an hour to evacuate the observatory grounds.

Relief for the Contrera fire should be coming soon, courtesy of the annual summer monsoon rains that typically begin in southern Arizona in the beginning of July. So far, it looks like Kitt Peak has dodged a bullet. Stay tuned for updates.


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