Over the years working at Kitt Peak National Observatory, I’ve seen several fires from the domes at the summit. A few of these fires have even approached close enough to create nail-biting situations where we prepared to evacuate the site. However, a little over a week ago, a fire burned right up to our facility. As an operator on the Mayall 4-meter and WIYN 3.5-meter telescopes, I’m tasked with facility and personnel safety after hours. So, this means I was keeping a close eye on the fire up until the point we had to leave Kitt Peak.
While driving up to work at Kitt Peak National Observatory on Saturday night, June 11, I passed through the small town of Three Points, Arizona and noticed an orange glow on the ridge between Kitt Peak and Baboquivari Peak. I gritted my teeth, afraid I was seeing the beginnings of a fire. I hoped I was wrong. I’d hoped someone had installed a radio tower with an orange light between the town and the mountain, but soon after I started driving up the Kitt Peak road, my hopes were dashed. I soon saw a fire burning off in the distance. At that point, I wasn’t terribly worried, I’d seen fires in that part of the range before and the Tohono O’Odham fire department usually knocked them out within a couple of days. When I reached the summit, I checked in with the duty operators, let them know I’d arrived on site and confirmed they had seen the fire and that officials knew about it. Since it had been visible from a nearby town, I figured they did, but it’s always good to check. By all accounts, the fire started from a lightning strike earlier that evening.
Unfortunately, the southwest has been suffering a drought which has now lasted over 20 years and vegetation was extremely dry. However, the wind was calm and blowing away from the observatory, so when I started my shift on Sunday, June 12, we were able to work with the fire burning off in the distance and smoke blowing away from us. As it turns out, the WIYN telescope, where I was working, had a problem with its optical system. A vacuum system which keeps the heavy mirrors off the hard mounting points had failed, causing minor distortion. We were taking spectra, so this problem didn’t keep us from working, but it needed to be fixed, so on Monday, June 13, our optical engineer began the process of removing the secondary mirror from the telescope to investigate the problem. This is a big job and it couldn’t be completed in one day, so my primary job that night was to monitor the fire’s progress and make sure the wind didn’t shift to blow over the observatory. Here’s a look at the fire shortly after sunset.
On Tuesday, while I slept, it became apparent that the fire was a big enough danger that steps should be taken to make the site as safe as possible. Engineers began shutting down less critical systems and making things as safe as possible. The wind shifted that afternoon and more smoke began coming toward the site. When many people imagine an observatory, they might imagine anywhere from one to six telescopes on a remote mountain summit. It may help to understand that Kitt Peak National Observatory is the world’s largest observatory campus with over twenty telescopes. There are, in fact at least six dormitory buildings along with several houses, kitchen facilities, a full maintenance yard including automotive shop, water treatment facility, backup generators and so forth. Like many college campuses, Kitt Peak is almost like a small town in its own right. So lots of people were at work all across the site through the day. That evening, I had a briefing from the Kitt Peak director. Because of the smoke, telescopes would be closed that night. Smoke can damage optics. As the night started, I went up to the Mayall telescope and took a photo from the visitor gallery. Only a little of the fire was visible from that vantage, looking like a string of lights on the mountain in the background, just to the right of the left-most dome. Still, this gives you an idea of how close the fire was getting.
The wind picked up the night of June 14 and the fire seemed to pick up strength. As you can see in the first photo, there was a small ridge line between us and the fire. By the morning of June 15, the fire crested that ridge and I wondered how much longer we would remain on site. Here’s what it looked like on Wednesday morning.
I went to bed, knowing someone would wake me if we needed to evacuate. I woke up and attended two administrative meetings. From my room, I could already tell there was much more smoke in the air by Wednesday afternoon. As soon as the meetings were finished, I went to the WIYN telescope. From that vantage, I saw that the fire had progressed dramatically. A wall of smoke rose from just below the mountain summit and I could see flames just over a mile away. I went into the observatory and learned that a controlled shutdown of as many systems as possible was underway. I helped where I could. Among other things, I helped to carry one piece of instrumentation down to an engineer’s car so it could be transported off the mountain safely. Firefighters began arriving on the mountain. One of them warned us a plane was about to drop a load of fire retardant and we should move our vehicles so they would be damaged when that much water and retardant came down onto the mountain. We did as directed and soon afterward I was called into a meeting in the director’s office. While in that meeting, the incident commander gave us the order to evacuate. I went to my dorm room, packed up as much as I could and went to my car. I was off the mountain within about half an hour.
Because my home is in New Mexico, the observatory management put me up in a hotel room in Tucson that night. I hoped we would be evacuated, the firefighters would hold the line on the fire and I would return in a night or two. Still I had an uneasy feeling as I walked back to my hotel room after dinner that night. Here’s the view of the hotel. What looks like clouds low in the sky is smoke from the Contreras wildfire.
On Wednesday night, I watched the fire on the mountain webcams from my hotel room. Part of my job is accounting for the night’s use so it can be reported to the National Science Foundation. I filled out my reports. Thursday night was more of the same. On Friday morning, I filled out my report, but soon after, computers at the observatory went dark. A little while later, I learned that utility power had gone out on the mountain and we’d lost the internet connection. The fire had reached the summit.
I went home on Friday, but have continued to follow the news. The firefighters did a tremendous job. No scientific buildings were lost. As far as I’ve heard, only four support structures were consumed by the fire. It helped that almost all the buildings at Kitt Peak are constructed of concrete, steel, and brick. Since Saturday, the fire has been contained, but access to the Kitt Peak summit is still strictly regulated for safety. As soon as its safe, engineers and facility teams will begin the process of inspecting the site. They’ll see how much smoke and ash infiltrated the domes. They’ll see if there’s been heat damage. They’ll make sure we have reliable power and internet. Once that’s done, it’ll be time to see if the telescopes and instrumentation can be brought back on line and repair things as needed. It’ll be a process and it’ll take time. Still, I can’t emphasize enough how grateful I am to the firefighters who jumped in and kept the facility as safe as possible so that we actually can look forward to resuming operations. They did tremendous work and I look forward to resuming science at Kitt Peak in the not-too-distant future.