Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Wildfires lurking again!

For the third year in a row, a telescope owned by the University of Arizona is being threatened by a wildfire. Two years ago, two small telescopes on Mt. Lemmon just north of Tucson were threatened by the horrible Aspen Fire, which destroyed the small town of Summerhaven. Last summer, the Nuttall wildfire threatened the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) and the under-construction Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) on Mt. Graham, between Tucson and New Mexico (Click here for a dramatic movie of the fire passing the LBT on July 6, 2004.)

This year, a fire in the Santa Rita mountains just south of Tucson are approaching the MMT Observatory, part of a complex of telescopes on Mount Hopkins. Yesterday the fire jumped containment lines and is threatening homes in Madera Canyon, a popular recreation site. While the fire is still miles away from the telescopes, the mountain has been evacuated. An unexpected change of wind could bring the fire toward the observatory and trap people. A photo taken yesterday from the administrative offices at the base of Mt. Hopkins is below (Image courtesy Stephen Criswell, FLWO).

Fires are a part of life in the western US, and part of the natural cycle. The Florida Fire now burning was started by lightning, and mostly has been burning out brush and dead wood, which is a good thing. And, luckily, to date no people have been hurt or property damaged by this fire. Astronomical observatories get the best data when located on mountain tops far from human habitation. Unfortunately, this often puts observatories in prime wildfire areas. In January 2003, a fire near Canburra, Australia destroyed the Mt. Stromlo Observatory (Click here for an example photograph taken by Matthew Colless three days after the fire). Even worse, this fire claimed many human lives as well, and I have heard amazing stories from astronomers who barely survived the conflagration. Here's hoping that the observatory and its neighbors come through this fire safely!

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