On Friday, June 17, the Contreras Wildfire crested the southwest ridge of Kitt Peak, Arizona, where four research telescopes are based at the National Observatory, home to NASA's NOIRLab. The next day the fire surrounded telescopes in other parts of the sprawling observatory, and continues to burn. NOIRLab has confirmed there is still active firefighting going on today and the state of the telescopes remains largely unknown.
“Because of the ongoing nature of the situation, it is currently not possible to assess whether any damage to the structures has occurred. We will report any damage as soon as possible,” a media release from NOIRLab (the National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory) reported.
Although whether the fires have affected the telescopes is still not known, the outsides of the buildings that contain them appear largely untouched. On the other hand, spot fires remain near some of the eastern buildings with active fire-fighting efforts ongoing. Four of the accompanying buildings, used as dormitories and for other support functions, rather than direct research, were destroyed. “There has been damage to the road but it does not appear catastrophic,” a NOIR update read.
“While we are not out of danger, the situation is improving,” the Observatory tweeted.
However, the fire could continue in the area for up to a week, and a wind change might sweep it back to the site.
Astronomers have thanked the firefighters for their courage and dedication.
Kitt Peak was the US's first national observatory and has a perpetual lease with the Tohono O’odham Nation, on whose land it is built with permission, as long as the observatory is being used for research and educational use.
It is home to a wide array of large and medium-sized ground-based optical telescopes, including the Nicholas U. Mayall 4-meter Telescope and the WIYN 3.5-meter Telescope. It is also home to one of the Very Long Baseline Array dishes that are distributed across North America and the University of Arizona millimeter-wavelength telescope.
Two years ago California's Lick Observatory at Mount Hamilton barely survived the SCU Lightning Complex fires, and now the same threat has come to Kitt Peak in Arizona. Lick has played an outsize role in the history of astronomy, but the younger Kitt Peak now has more and larger optical telescopes that have played a part in recent discoveries, as well as radio dishes that form part of major networks. We don't yet know how well that will continue.
Major observatories have always been somewhat vulnerable to fire, since they need to be placed on the tops of mountains well away from city lights. Unless the peak is above the timberline or is so volcanic almost nothing grows there, fire can sweep up the slope to threaten the observatory. In 2003 most of the buildings at Mount Stromlo Observatory were lost to a major fire.
The combination of rising temperatures and the southwest US's megadrought has increased the threat to the region's many observatories, so it's not really surprising the two major institutions have been hit in less than two years. Instead, it's probably more of a sign of things to come.
Update: NOIRLab is now reporting the fire around Kitt Peak appears to be controlled but continues to rage elsewhere. Access to the site remains limited, hindering efforts to assess the damage.
Correction: This article previously listed the wrong location for the Lick Observatory