Jun 20, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Arizona wildfire threatens national observatory

An aerial view of the Contreras Fire.
An aerial view of the Contreras Fire near the Kitt Peak National Observatory, Arizona. Photo: Bureau of Land Management - Arizona/Facebook

A massive wildfire at the Kitt Peak National Observatory southwest of Tucson, Arizona, was threatening telescopes in the area overnight.

Why it matters: The Contreras Fire that's at 40% containment destroyed four non-scientific structures last week and firefighters were battling flames near the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope and and another one that's under construction on Sunday, per statements from the observatory.

 A field of telescopes dots the summit of Kitt Peak, on the Tohono Oodham First Nation reservation in Sells, Ariz.
An undated image of a field of telescopes dotting the summit of Kitt Peak, on the Tohono Oodham First Nation reservation in Sells, Ariz. Photo: John Briley/For The Washington Post via Getty Images
  • Astrophysist David Schlegel, whose research group relies on Kitt Peak's Mayall Telescope, expressed concerns to the New York Times Sunday that officials could find more large-scale damage to equipment that may "pause the progression of cosmology for years to come."

Where it stands: The wildfire that lightning ignited on June 11 has prompted evacuations in Indigenous-populated areas and on Friday 40 people were forced to flee the observatory, per the NYT. The observatory remains closed.

  • The observatory tweeted that it's received "encouraging reports" from fire officials about a diminishing threat to facilities and instruments that appeared to be intact, but damage assessments can't begin until it's safe to enter the area.
  • "While we are not out of danger the situation is improving," the observatory said.

By the numbers: The Contreras Fire is one of six large blazes burning across Arizona, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

  • 19 large fires are burning in Alaska, while there are four big blazes in New Mexico, two in California and one in Texas, per the NIFC.

Context: The U.S. is under threat from more extreme weather events due to climate change, per Axios' Andrew Freedman.

  • Much of the U.S. West and Southwest is enduring a long-term drought, and drier conditions contribute to hotter air temperatures that further dry out soils and vegetation to make the landscape more fire-prone, Freedman notes.

For the record: The National Weather Service warned dangerous multiday heat wave that began in the Southwest and expanded to other parts of the U.S. was set to consume the Upper Midwest on Monday, with widespread excessive heat warnings and heat advisories in effect.

  • It's "expected to continue making headlines across the central U.S. and Deep South during the last full week of June, according to the NWS.
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