UA observatory threatened by Mount Graham fire

By Charles Ratliff
Arizona Daily Wildcat
April 29, 1996

The Associated Press
Arizona Daily Wildcat

Firefighters extinguish a blaze along the Swift Trial on Mount Graham on Friday. By yesterday afternoon, the fire was just over a mile from the UA's Mount Graham International Observatory.


As firefighters continued through the weekend to battle the forest fire atop Mount Graham's Clark Peak, a skeleton crew remained at the UA observatory, securing buildings to prevent smoke and ash damage to telescope mirrors.

Buddy Powell, acting associate director for the Mount Graham International Observatory, said the University of Arizona and the U.S. Forest Service have not evacuated the four-person crew manning the project site on Mount Graham, despite weekend reports that it had.

"The fire is continuing to burn out of control," Powell said, "and our crew is working with the Forest Service at their direction."

Powell said the crew is prepared to evacuate if the fire gets too close to the observatory.

The observatory's buildings, equipment and telescopes are worth about $25 million, he said. The UA has finished building two of the three telescopes planned for the site. Construction on the third, the large binocular telescope, began, but was halted by a court injunction in 1994.

Lydia Goon, spokesperson for the Clark Peak fire, said from the fire line that the blaze had closed to about a mile from the UA's telescopes. She said the Forest Service plans to bring a bulldozer to the observatory in case it is needed to fight the fire.

Goon said the blaze had consumed 2,100 acres in the Coronado National Forest as of 9 a.m. yesterday.

Support crew members are providing food, showers and medical support for the 340 firefighters, bringing the number of people on Clark Peak to 535, she said.

Two air tankers and six helicopters are fighting the blaze from the air, Goon said.

The fire is burning ponderosa pine and mixed conifer at elevations between 6,500 to 9,200 feet. The area being consumed is populated by endangered Mexican spotted owls, northern goshawks and Mount Graham red squirrels.

The Forest Service said an assessment of the damage to the species' habitat will not be conducted until the fire is under control.

Diane Maxwell, spokesperson for the Coronado National Forest, said that despite the number of people fighting the fire, the Forest Service could use more help.

Maxwell said another fire in the four peaks region of Tonto National Forest, near Phoenix, flared up Saturday afternoon. The fire so far has consumed 1,500 acres and is burning out of control.

"That's part of the reason why our resources are so tight," Maxwell said.

Winds have hampered the fire-fighting efforts since the fire broke out last week.

"Today we are mostly concerned about the winds," she said.

Forecasts yesterday predicted that winds would reach 35 miles per hour with gusts up to 50 mph, Goon said. She said as of noon yesterday, however, gusts had not reached the predicted high.