Arizona Wildfire destroys observatory buildings

Astronomers looked on in fear over the past week as a growing wildfire crept up an Arizona mountainside toward the Kitt Peak National Observatory, forcing 40 people to evacuate days before the fire destroyed four buildings early Friday morning.

The fire, known as the Contreras fire, has burned more than 18,000 acres, twisted among indigenous peoples in the state near Tucson, and scientists may not be able to return to the observatory for weeks. But its dozens of telescopes remained safe from Sunday afternoon, officials said, and only the four buildings that were not used for research were destroyed.

Firefighters contained 40 percent of the perimeter of the fire despite the violent southwesterly heat wave that slowed their efforts, and as the fire had not caused extensive damage to the area, the evacuated indigenous community of Pan Tak was preparing to return. The fire department will continue to patrol the area.

Although the fire has gone up and the threat to the observatory appears to have abated, the close call represents a new facet of climate catastrophes: the threat to science and research.

Dr. David Schlegel, an astrophysicist in a research group that relies on Kitt Peaks’ groundbreaking Mayall telescope, said more extensive fire damage that can still be detected among the technological equipment could “pause the evolution of cosmology for years to come.”

The fire, which was ignited by a lightning strike, already posed a significant disturbance to the researchers and residents of the surrounding community.

“Instead of working the last week, it’s mostly like being in a war – you’re completely distracted by what’s going on,” said Dr. Schlegel. He added that everyone knew about the fire for days before it went up, but that “there is absolutely nothing you can do.”

Kitt Peak, located in the Tohono O’odham Nation, was the first astronomical observatory in the United States funded by the National Science Foundation, and it is recognized across the globe as a landmark in astronomy, said Dr. Schlegel.

Dr. Schlegel works in the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument program, which has used the observatory to map the universe in orders of magnitude. Just assembling the technology required about 600,000 custom-ordered parts, he said.

Before the fire reached the scientific structures, firefighters cleared flammable materials around them, as a form of protection. However, exposure to high heat may have affected the equipment in ways that were not immediately noticeable.

“Probably there will be smoke damage or infiltration of dust in the telescope and the instrument,” said Dr. Schlegel. But, he added, if any of that made the observatory stop working for a few months, “it would be much preferable to having to start over.”

The buildings that were damaged were mainly dormitories, where researchers and students slept after spending whole nights using telescopes and other equipment.

The communities in the area are not in the clear, even though they are close, said Dr. Michelle Edwards, Associate Director of the Observatory. She visited the observatory last Saturday, accompanied by firefighters in protective gear.

Dr. Edwards said she observed “scattered fire over the top of the peak” and damage to the road leading up to the mountain, as well as to the observatory’s electrical systems. Researchers may not be able to return for at least six weeks unless a major change in weather, such as a thunderstorm, helps put out the fire, she said. The 10-day weather forecast for Kitt Peak includes chances for rain from Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service.

The observatory has been closed to the public since the start of the pandemic out of respect for the Tohono O’odham tribe’s social collection policy. The nation stepped down these precautions on June 1, and Dr. Edwards had begun planning the observatory’s reopening. Now it is “set much further back,” she said.

Dr. Evgenya Shkolnik, an associate professor of astrophysics at the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, said her students are researching at the observatory, and losing access to it would hit them hard.

When the telescopes are threatened, “our work is threatened,” said Dr. Shkolnik. “But it can also be very emotional. We also have wonderful memories there. We have trained our students there, trained ourselves and made great discoveries. We have personal and emotional connections to our telescopes.”

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