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Kitt Peak telescopes remain standing after Arizona wildfire claims at least 4 buildings on site

A raging wildfire is "mostly holding" at Kitt Peak National Observatory, which remains too dangerous for astronomers to verify how much of the area was damaged, officials said in an update Monday (June 20).

Although initial evaluations suggest that all the telescope domes remain standing, the Arizona facility remains an "active fire fighting" area, with aerial firefighting efforts continuing by planes and helicopters over both the observatory and neighboring communities, officials from the National Science Foundation's National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (NOIRLab), which runs the observatory, said in a statement (opens in new tab).

"It has not been possible to visit the observatory with a damage assessment team yet to evaluate the state of the telescopes," officials wrote. "The entire observatory is still considered too dangerous and is open only to the firefighting teams."

Related: Satellites watch devastating fires blaze across northern New Mexico

As of Saturday (June 18), Kitt Peak personnel were "cautiously optimistic that the worst may have passed," although NOIRLab officials noted that fire officials deemed the mountain at risk for about a week longer.

Firefighters have reported that while all the telescope domes remain standing, at least four non-scientific structures (meaning, dormitories and other support buildings) were lost on Friday (June 17), the NSF said.

"Astronomical facilities and instrumentation appear intact, but assessments of damage to equipment will only begin once conditions allow for safe entry into the area," officials wrote in an update Sunday (June 19).

As of Monday (June 20), the Contreras Fire was raging across 20,360 acres (nearly 8,240 hectares) and had grown in size by about 8% since the day before, NSF reported, and was 40% contained.

"The [firefighting] team today reported that the fire is mostly holding at Kitt Peak but that there are still significant resources committed to protecting the site," NOIRLab officials wrote on Monday. "We are deeply grateful for their tireless efforts."

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NOIRLab officials have stated that assessing the damage from the fire will likely take weeks, while it may take still longer to re-establish infrastructure like the site's power supply.

Kitt Peak is home to one of the largest collections of astronomical instruments in the United States and is situated amid dense brush and steep terrain, making the area difficult for firefighters to navigate.

Wildfires are generally increasing in frequency and intensity due to ongoing, human-driven global warming. 

Other observatories have also faced down significant fires in recent years. Examples include a huge California fire coming within just a few miles of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute's Allen Telescope Array in September 2021, and a wildfire coming very close to Mount Wilson Observatory, also in California, in September 2020.

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.