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Fire threatens observatory, tempered by rain

By Holly Wells
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, July 20, 2005
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Fire crews have begun to leave the 22,500-acre Florida Fire in the Santa Rita Mountains to attack new fires in the region.

The Florida fire threatened a UA-sponsored observatory on top of the mountain, but is now 60 percent contained.

The Smithsonian Institution's Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory sits atop 8,550-foot Mount Hopkins, 25 miles south of Tucson, in the Santa Rita Mountains. The observatory is a joint venture of the Smithsonian and the UA.

There is $100 million worth of telescope and other equipment atop the mountain, according to Dan Brocious, public information officer for the observatory.

The observatory was evacuated July 12 as the Florida Fire expanded.

"This is the best shape we've been in in a while," Brocious said, referring to the current level of containment of the fire. "We're wishing for more rain and no lightning."

The Florida Fire, named for the peak on which it began, was ignited July 7 by lightning. The suppression effort has thus far cost $6.5 million, said D.L. Wilkerson, information officer for the service command center at Continental School.

Firefighters on Monday successfully conducted a 500-acre prescribed burn in the Madera Canyon area, said Wilkerson. The burnout slowly backed the fire down a hill on the east side of the canyon, consuming grass and brush, while keeping the fire from gathering intensity and climbing up the mountain.

"The fire is winding down and the north and east side of the mountain are in good shape," Wilkerson said.

He said the observatory will remain evacuated, but said the fire did not spread too far and there has been no damage.

Brocious said he has seen far less smoke in the last few days and said they are hopeful the observatory is out of harm's way.

Observatory staff has not resumed normal operations and don't know when they will be able to.

"We learn everyday at a 6:30 a.m. briefing about the current condition of the fire," Brocious said. "Although it's died down, there is still a presence atop the mountain in terms of fire trucks and firefighters."

Fire crews have let some observatory staff up to the telescope for a couple of hours each day. Until Monday, staff had to wear protective fire gear.

For years, station staff have prepared for possible wildfires by meeting with the local ranger and developing a fire plan, Brocious said.

Staff had pruned back dead limbs around structures, undergone fire coordination training, and reserved 50,000 gallons of water.

"Given the fact that there hasn't been a big fire on the Santa Rita Mountains for over 100 years, it's still very dry and there's a lot of fuel up there," he said.

When the fire does eventually burn out, Brocious said staff will continue to do fire training and will do additional trimming around the site.

Although monsoons have helped firefighters control the Florida Fire, they have also caused several other fires across the state through lightning and wind.

Sunday's thunderstorms ignited 64 new wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico and Monday night's storm was expected to have caused several more wildfires.

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