The Contreras Fire in Arizona reached Kitt Peak National Observatory late last week, but while some of the facility’s buildings were destroyed, it appears that the observatory’s telescopes have been spared.
Astronomers across the world held their breath on Friday as the Contreras Fire approached the telescopes of Kitt Peak National Observatory, an astronomical research facility in the mountains near Tucson, Arizona. The observatory, run by the National Science Foundation’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (NOIRLab), is home to four telescopes: the Hiltner 2.4-metre Telescope, the McGraw-Hill 1.3-metre Telescope, the Very Long Baseline Array Dish, and the University of Arizona 12-metre Telescope.
NOIRLab officials, who viewed the property from a distance, were able to determine that “all physical scientific observatory structures are still standing,” according to a June 18 tweet. An updated press release from NOIRLab yesterday stated that four non-scientific buildings — some of which were dormitories — were lost on June 17. Images shared by NOIRLab show that the telescope domes appear intact. Kitt Peak isn’t out of the woods yet, though, as NOIRLab indicated that the fire is still burning in nearby areas.
“Active fire fighting remains in progress at, and around, Kitt Peak National Observatory,” NOIRLab said in the June 20 press release. “It has not been possible to visit the observatory with a damage assessment team yet to evaluate the state of the telescopes. The entire observatory is still considered too dangerous and is open only to the firefighting teams.”
The Contreras Fire has been raging since June 11, when a lightning strike ignited the blaze on land belonging to the Tohono O’odham Nation. The mountainous terrain and high winds in the area have made combatting the fire difficult. The Contreras Fire had burned 20,361 acres, as of a June 20 operational briefing by Kevin Wilson from the Bureau of Land Management. The Arizona Emergency Information Network reports that the fire is 40% contained as of June 19, and over 350 personnel continue to battle the blaze.