July 9, 2007

Wild Blaze Threatens Kitt Peak: All Telescopes Safe Sunday

A wildfire that spread to more than 3,500 acres Sunday was inching closer to Kitt Peak National Observatory and churning across a mountain range the Tohono O'odham consider to be sacred.

As of Sunday night, Kitt Peak's 23 telescopes were safe. But flames cut across the Baboquivari Mountains, about 50 miles southwest of Tucson, leaving disparate patches of hot spots as they consumed trees and brush. It was unclear how close the blaze was to Baboquivari Peak, which tribal members view as the home of their creator, I'itoi.

"Fire moves in fingers," said Jonetta Holt, a spokeswoman for the Eastern Arizona Incident Management Team. "It doesn't move as a wall of flame."

At Kitt Peak -- one of the world's largest and most diverse gatherings of telescopes for nighttime, optical and infrared viewing -- fire division supervisor Tim Connor watched the Alhambre Fire move a half mile closer to the telescopes in less than a day.

"It just slowly eats right this way," Connor said.

Sunday afternoon, the fire was about a mile and a half south of Kitt Peak. But with the right mix of weather and wind, the fire could jump safety lines and cut into the valley beneath the observatory, Connor said.

"It could be here in short order," he said.

Saturday night was particularly challenging because the wind shifted directions, at times pushing the fire toward the observatory and at times pushing it away. The wind was steady Sunday, but both Holt and Connor were concerned that another afternoon thunderstorm would bring plenty of wind and lightning but no rain.

"It's gained in complexity," Holt said of the conditions.

To stop the blaze and protect the observatory, Connor said firefighters would dig a new line and lay retardant -- essentially a fertilizer mix that's used to coat the desert wilderness -- from the observatory's road to down into the valley between the observatory and the Baboquivari Mountains. Four fire engines were already at the observatory, with another four on the way, he said.

Meanwhile, the blaze continued to move.

Plumes of smoke filled the sky and could be seen from at least 15 miles away. Spotter planes and air tankers carrying retardant circled above the burning patches like hawks. They would drop retardant along ridges in the hope of stopping the flames from moving toward Kitt Peak. Fire crews worked behind the retardant to dig fire lines.

All told, four hotshot crews of specially trained firefighters, two hand crews from the Department of Corrections working on the ground, another hand crew from the Coronado Forest, four small air tankers and two large air tankers were being used to quell the blaze, Holt said.

Firefighters have been told where the sacred sites are in the Baboquivari Mountains and will not disturb them, but it's up to Tohono O'odham officials to have an action plan. Tribal officials said they do have a plan to make sure key areas are protected, but they did not provide more specific information.

Residents of the small village of Pan Tak, which is about five miles away from the blaze and has roughly six homes, had been notified that they may need to evacuate at some point.

It's unclear how the fire started, but lightning was spotted in the area Saturday, Holt said.

Where the blaze began is also unclear, but Connor said he thought it started at the foot of the Baboquivari Mountains. From there, he said, a Saturday night thunderstorm that produced plenty of wind but no rain pushed the fire in all different directions.

Watch a slide show from the wildfire on Kitt Peak at azstarnet.com/wildfire

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