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Wildfire Reaches One of the Largest Observatories in the US

The Contreras Fire reached the ridge that's home to over two dozen instruments making up Kitt Peak Observatory.

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Part of the Contreras Fire burning on the slopes of the Kitt Peak mountain on Thursday evening.
KPNO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA

A rapidly expanding wildfire reached one of the largest collections of telescopes and other astronomical equipment in the US on Friday morning.

The National Science Foundation, which operates the Kitt Peak Observatory on a remote ridge in the Tohono O'odham Nation outside Tucson, Arizona, said in a statement that "it is currently not possible to assess whether any damage to the structures has occurred."

The facility says more than 30 telescopes and instruments are operated from its perch overlooking a dry and dark expanse of southwest desert. The observatory plays a key role in the study of dark energy, nebulas and other deep space objects, as well as the search for exoplanets. 

The Contreras Fire surprised fire crews by cresting the ridge that hosts the observatory after midnight Friday morning. The observatory had already been evacuated late on Wednesday, and firefighters spent Thursday clearing brush and trees around the site. 

The fire was started by a lightning strike on June 11. As of Friday it has burned more than 11,000 acres and is zero percent contained. Over 300 firefighting personnel are currently working the fire.

This year's fire season began very early in the American west, arguably starting with destructive, wind-driven fires that tore through Denver suburbs in late December before 2022 had even begun. Strong winds also whipped up the largest fires burning in the country, both located in New Mexico and larger than the previous biggest fire on record in the state. 

Climate change contributes to more frequent heat waves and dryness, like the conditions that've helped drive the spate of early season blazes burning primarily in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. 

Fortunately, the forecast for the weekend at Kitt Peak calls for a chance of rain that could slow the fire's growth, but frequent lightning and gusting winds could also hamper firefighting efforts.