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!