This past week, astronomers at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona watched in dread as a massive wildfire moved up an Arizona slope toward the observatory. The fire forced the evacuation of forty personnel several days before it destroyed four structures early on Friday morning.
More than 18,000 acres have been consumed by the fire, which is known as the Contreras fire. It is now winding through Indigenous-populated regions in the state of Arizona close to Tucson, and it is possible that scientists may not be able to return to the observatory for many weeks. However, by of Sunday afternoon, authorities reported that all of the facility’s telescopes, which numbered in the dozens, were still intact, and that only the four buildings that were not used for research had been destroyed.
In spite of the excessive heat wave in the Southwest slowing down their efforts, firefighters have contained forty percent of the fire’s perimeter. Furthermore, because the fire had not caused extensive damage to the area, the Indigenous community of Pan Tak, which had evacuated, was preparing to return. The area will continue to be patrolled by the fire personnel.
Despite the fact that the fire has been contained and the risk to the observatory seems to have lessened, the near miss exemplifies a new dimension of climate-related disasters: the hazard to scientific inquiry and investigation.
According to Dr. Schlegel, Kitt Peak, which lies in the Tohono O’odham Nation, is home to the first astronomical observatory to be sponsored by the National Science Foundation in the United States. As a result, Kitt Peak is regarded as an important landmark in the field of astronomy all over the world.
Dr. Schlegel is involved in the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument initiative, which has mapped an order of magnitude more portion of the cosmos thanks to the observatory. According to him, the process of just assembling the technology needed over 600,000 specially specialised pieces.
As a means of providing protection for the scientific buildings, the fire fighters cleansed the area surrounding them of combustible items before the fire could reach them. However, the apparatus may have been harmed in ways that were not immediately apparent due to the extreme heat to which it was exposed.
The majority of the structures that were destroyed were dormitories, which were where researchers, students, and other individuals would sleep after spending the whole night operating various pieces of technology.
According to Dr. Michelle Edwards, who is the associate director of the observatory, the local communities are not out of the woods yet, despite the fact that they are quite near. On Saturday, she went to the observatory, and she was escorted there by firefighting personnel that were dressed in safety gear.
Dr. Edwards said that she saw “scattered flames over the top of the peak” and that there was damage to the road that led up to the mountain as well as the electrical equipment at the observatory. She said that it is possible that scientists would not be able to return for at least six weeks unless there is a significant shift in the weather, such as a rainstorm, that helps put out the fire. According to the information provided by the National Weather Service, the 10-day outlook for Kitt Peak includes the possibility of precipitation beginning on Tuesday.
Since the beginning of the epidemic, the observatory has continued to show respect for the Tohono O’odham tribe’s social-gathering rules by remaining closed to the general public. On June 1st, those protections were relaxed by the Nation, and by that same day, Dr. Edwards had started making plans for the observatory’s reopening. She said that at this point, it is “placed considerably further back.”
According to Dr. Evgenya Shkolnik, an associate professor of astrophysics in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, her students conduct research at the observatory, and she believes that if they were to lose access to it, it would have a significant impact on their work.