On June 15 this year, I was one of the last eight people to evacuate the summit of Kitt Peak in Southern Arizona as a wildfire approached, leaving the observatory where I work in the hand of a large firefighting team. When I left, the Contreras fire was within a mile of the observatory. Less than an hour before the evacuation, I stood in the parking lot of the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope and looked into the raging inferno. The wind blew our direction and sparks flew off the fire. I helped one of the WIYN engineers find a valuable instrument in the 0.9-meter telescope next door and carry it to her car, so it could be driven to safety. To be honest, I never felt in danger during this whole experience, in part because of the calm confidence of the firefighters on the mountaintop. Still, the closeness and size of the fire effected me profoundly.
I went to a hotel room in Tucson. I was still the operator on duty for the WIYN telescope and it was my duty to fill in telescope usage reports to be filed with the National Science Foundation. I spent the night watching live footage of the fire from our webcams. Early in the morning of June 16, I watched as the fire swept up over the southwest ridge where the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and the Arizona Radio Observatory have dishes. Soon after that, the cameras died. I felt hollow inside, not knowing what would come next.
As it turns out, those firefighters saved the observatory. Every science building came through the experience. The dorm building where I live when at work and the one across the way from it were damaged. Two dorms on the southwest ridge were lost. The fire took out power lines and the internet, which ran the same route as the power lines. This is why I lost the camera view. The fire also burned through many of the wooden posts holding up guardrails along the road to the summit. There was a lot of cleanup in the aftermath of the fire. Ash encroached many places. Still, I have been working on the summit since August. When I returned, we were operating purely on generator power. Our internet has been provided by a Starlink satellite connection since the fire.
In September, the local power utility installed new power lines and we’re back on line power at the summit. New internet cable is being strung. The road to the summit is closed to all but staff, and even staff can only go up or down at certain hours to avoid interfering with road work. The upshot is that I’ve effectively lost a day of my “weekend” because I have to travel to the mountain earlier in the day than I did before. At a personal level, this has been the hardest thing to adjust to and I feel like I’m struggling a lot harder to keep personal projects moving forward. Still, I’m glad to be back at work and I’m gradually adapting to using my extra night on the mountain as time for writing or other personal work.
Kitt Peak National Observatory is on the land of the Tohono O’Odham people. I’ve always been grateful to work at an observatory that has good relations with its neighbors. A large number of people working at the observatory are part of the Tohono O’Odham nation and after the fire moved past Kitt Peak, it threatened the nearby village of Pan Tak. Fortunately, all the villagers and their animals were safely evacuated and were able to return home by June 23.
On Wednesday, November 30, Tim Antone, a Tohono O’Odham medicine man came to the summit and blessed the structures and performed a personal blessing ceremony for any staff who wanted to participate. As I say, the fire was a profound and challenging experience for me, so I partook in the blessing, which helped to bring a sense of closure to the whole affair as I reflected on the past few months. I’m grateful to Mr. Antone for the gift of this ceremony to the observatory and its staff.