Jun 17

Continuing Updates on the Contreras Fire at Kitt Peak National Observatory

Part of the Contreras Fire burning on the slopes of the Kitt Peak mountain on Thursday evening 16 June 2022. Credit:KPNO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA
Part of the Contreras Fire burning on the slopes of the Kitt Peak mountain on Thursday evening 16 June 2022. Credit: KPNO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA


UPDATE 21 June pm:

Today the area affected by the Contreras fire increased by 4,401 acres to a total of 24,761 acres. Containment increased to 50% according to the Eastern Area Incident Management Team.

The Team reports that fire around the eastern flank of the summit of Kitt Peak National Observatory is now controlled and they expect to have the northern flank controlled today. The fight is not over for our Tohono O’odham neighbors and we are keeping these communities in our thoughts.

Conditions have moderated dramatically today and annual monsoon clouds have started slowly building. The road to Kitt Peak will continue to be closed with access restricted as the monsoon rain may cause additional issues with the road.

We have no new information that would conflict with the prior assessment that all of the domes and other scientific structures are intact. 

We will time our updates as new developments with the fire warrant. We will post new information as our crews are able to access the Observatory site, once temporary basic services have been re-established, and can start assessing any damage. We are indebted to the fire crews for their continued work on the Contreras fire. The DESI collaboration, whose state-of-the-art instrument is on the Nicholas U. Mayall 4-meter Telescope, shared a heartwarming video expressing their gratitude.

UPDATE 20 June pm

Active fire fighting remains in progress at, and around, Kitt Peak National Observatory. In the last 24 hours, the affected area increased by 1,517 acres to a total of 20,360 acres. The fire remains at 40% containment, according to the Eastern Area Incident Management Team, the group managing the response.

Aerial firefighting from planes and helicopters continues above Kitt Peak and neighboring communities today.

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

The Team today reported that the fire is mostly holding at Kitt Peak but that there are still significant resources committed to protecting the site. We are deeply grateful for their tireless efforts.

UPDATE 19 June pm

There is still active fire fighting going on around Kitt Peak National Observatory. The size of the area affected by the fire increased by 1,197 acres to a total of 18,843 acres. The fire is now 40% contained, according to the Eastern Area Incident Management Team, the group managing the response. We are receiving encouraging reports from the Team — while we are not out of danger, the situation is improving. Firefighting continues around KPNO today including aerial support from planes and helicopters.

As reported yesterday, all of the telescope domes are still standing but four non-scientific structures (dormitories and other support buildings) were lost during the run of the fire on the morning of 17 June 2022. Astronomical facilities and instrumentation appear intact, but assessments of damage to equipment will only begin once conditions allow for safe entry into the area. 

The remaining structures on the southwest ridge are now protected (see map), as are the structures on the north end near the Nicholas U. Mayall 4-meter Telescope and UArizona/Steward Observatory domes. Crews continue to battle fire near the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope and the Windows on the Universe Center which is under construction.

UPDATE 18 June pm: Thanks to the sustained work of the firefighting team, all of the domes and scientific instruments at Kitt Peak National Observatory remain intact as of this afternoon. However the threat is not over: there are still active fire fronts at the summit. 

Michelle Edwards, Associate Director of Kitt Peak, and Joe Davis, Safety Manager, were able to visit the site today and viewed the outside of every scientific structure (some, due to safety restrictions, from a distance). They report that all physical scientific observatory structures are still standing and in the case of the facilities on the South West ridge there is little visible external damage at this time; however several non-science buildings were lost. The areas around the WIYN 3.5-meter Telescope and the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope are still active fire zones and could not be approached, but Edwards and Davis were able to confirm they are standing as of today. 

There has been damage to the road but it does not appear catastrophic.

The summit is still an active fire zone and access will be extremely limited in the coming days. Once the fire danger is over, there will be much assessment needed before the full extent of the damage can be determined. This process will likely take weeks. Restoration of services (power, etc) may take even longer. 

At a meeting earlier today, NOIRLab and NSF staff expressed their deep thanks to the firefighters who are working in difficult conditions to save the site.

UPDATE 18 June am: We’re hopeful that the worst may have passed for Kitt Peak National Observatory, but fire officials warn that the mountain is at risk for another week. The fire perimeter moved north of the peak, damaging the access road with passage very difficult. NOIRLab staff, escorted by the fire team, hope to be able to visit the summit today to begin damage assessment; we will provide an update later today. Thank you to all the firefighters who are working tirelessly to save the structures at Kitt Peak!

The Contreras Fire reached the Kitt Peak National Observatory during the early morning of Friday 17 June 2022. We are working with the firefighters at the site to assess the damage and will share details about the facilities as we learn more. We remain in an active fire situation with rapidly changing conditions.

The Contreras Fire began on Saturday 11 June 2022 on a remote ridge of the Baboquivari Mountains, north of the Baboquivari Peak which is to the south of Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) on the lands of the Tohono O’odham Nation. It was triggered by a lightning strike and exacerbated by rugged terrain that is difficult for firefighters to access. Retardant efforts have had limited success because of the heavy smoke, high winds and extremely dry fuels. 

By Thursday 16 June, more than 11,500 acres were burning. On Thursday night, the decision was made to clear a line of trees and brush below the southern ridge; that was mostly completed before evening. Fire crews also cleared brush around individual domes, critical infrastructure, and flammable propane tanks. High-capacity planes dropped fire retardant on major areas of the fire. Power was shut off to the site Friday morning for safety reasons. The SR 386 road to the summit is closed.

Around 2:00 a.m. MST Friday morning the fire, contrary to the hopeful expectations of the firecrews, crested the southwest ridge where the Hiltner 2.4-meter Telescope, McGraw-Hill 1.3-meter Telescope, Very Long Baseline Array Dish and UArizona 12-meter Telescope are located. 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.

The temperature in the Tucson region has over the past days reached 40 °C (105 °F), impeding fire mitigation efforts. The weather is forecast to be partly cloudy with scattered showers and thunderstorms possible for tomorrow, Saturday 18 June. 

NSF’s NOIRLab is deeply grateful to the firefighters working at the site and for the support of the Tohono O’odham community at this challenging time. Safety remains our top priority.

More information 

NSF’s NOIRLab (National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory), the US center for ground-based optical-infrared astronomy, operates the international Gemini Observatory (a facility of NSF, NRC–Canada, ANID–Chile, MCTIC–Brazil, MINCyT–Argentina, and KASI–Republic of Korea), Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO), Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO), the Community Science and Data Center (CSDC), and Vera C. Rubin Observatory (operated in cooperation with the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory). It is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with NSF and is headquartered in Tucson, Arizona. The astronomical community is honored to have the opportunity to conduct astronomical research on Iolkam Du’ag (Kitt Peak) in Arizona, on Maunakea in Hawai‘i, and on Cerro Tololo and Cerro Pachón in Chile. We recognize and acknowledge the very significant cultural role and reverence that these sites have to the Tohono O’odham Nation, to the Native Hawaiian community, and to the local communities in Chile, respectively.



Amanda Kocz
Communications Manager
T: +1 520 318 8591
Email: amanda.kocz@noirlab.edu 

Shari Lifson
AURA Corporate Communications Coordinator
Tel: +1 202 769 5232
Email: slifson@aura-astronomy.org