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Observatory out of harm's way

By Nate Buchik
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, July 14, 2004
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With 75 percent of the fires contained, the Nuttall and Gibson blazes on Mount Graham no longer pose much of a threat to a $200 million dollar UA observatory.

Although in the line of fire most of last week and at one point only 400 yards away from the flames, the Mount Graham International Observatory should survive thanks to a heavy-duty sprinkler system and some favorable weather.

"I'm very happy. Those firefighter guys saved my telescope," said Director of the Large Binocular Telescope, John M. Hill. "It's in good shape now."

The Large Binocular Telescope, which will have cost about $120 million when completed, is in the later stages of its construction, and should be complete in 2007.

It will be the most powerful optical telescope in the world when completed, according to Buddy Powell, director of the observatory. But the future of the scope was very much in jeopardy last week.

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The Nuttall and Gibson fires merged to cover about 30,000 acres of land, and came close to communities in Columbine and Turkey Flat.

Air tankers, helicopters and close to 1,000 firefighters tried to contain the fire. Fighting the lightning-caused fire has cost $8.5 million so far, with 12 hotshot crews aiding in the fight. While there is still work to be done, much of the resources have been scaled back. A new team is coming into the area from New Mexico to try to complete the containment.

"It's definitely dying down. There's always some potential with any fire to rebound," said fire information officer Margo Whitt. "The fire ... has gotten various amounts of precipitation. The humidity has calmed it down. (But) if the weather doesn't cooperate, things could cook again."

Ten thousand gallons of water were trucked in daily so that the observatory's sprinkler system could slow the fire's progress. This was only a temporary solution until the monsoon season could take over.

Firefighters are still working to keep pushing the fire away from the observatory.

"There was some burnout done around the observatory. There's very little smoke anywhere near the observatory right now," Whitt said.

While there would have been many delays and rebuilding efforts had the fire reached the observatory, astronomers won't miss much time readying the telescope.

In all, Hill estimated they lost about two weeks of work, but he still hopes to have first light, when the telescope gathers light from the sky for the first time, later this year. Astronomers hope they will be able to study planets from other solar systems with the scope.

"We're hoping to go back up next week. It sort of depends on if it keeps on raining," Hill said. "But looking out my window right now, it looks like the possibilities for rain are very good."

Light rains fell over the fire area on Monday, but the most rainfall occurred south of the burn area, according to fire officials.

The fire, which is about 15 miles southwest of Safford, Arizona, has burned for 16 days.

Crews have begun the task of "mop-up," in which burning vegetation is cooled off, broken into smaller pieces, and extinguished. The objective is to have no heat sources within at least 200 feet of containment lines," according to a Nuttall Fire press release.

Governor Janet Napolitano visited the fire on Friday and firefighters extinguished a new lightning-induced fire on Sunday that could have joined the main fire.

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