Contreras Fire reaches the observatories at Kitt Peak

Southern Arizona

Updated at 4:57 p.m. MDT June 18, 2022

At about 1 p.m. MDT on Saturday Planning Operations Section Chief Trainee Kevin Wilson said none of the 20+ telescopes at the Kitt Peak observatory were affected when the Contreras Fire ran up the steep brush-covered slopes to the site at 2 a.m. Friday. Two primary and two secondary structures burned, however. A separate report from the incident management team indicated that those four were “non-scientific buildings.”

Two Hotshot Crews (Helena and San Juan), five engines, Division Supervisors, and Safety Officers remained at the observatories as the fire approached very early Friday morning.

To see all of the articles on Wildfire Today about the Contreras Fire, including the most recent, click HERE.

Those firefighters “…had a solid 12 to 14 hour firefight,” Mr. Wilson said. “They were cut off when the fire impinged [Highway 386]. They had a very good safety area to work in. They had to disengage for a brief period of time from the fire and then re engaged when it was appropriate and were successful in saving the telescopes and the majority of the complex. This is a real heroic effort by these folks.”

Congratulations to these firefighters for overcoming what must have been an extremely challenging assignment considering the fuels and steep slopes surrounding the telescopes and other structures.

On the north end of the fire along Highway 86 near the Pan Tak and Cowtown communities, Saturday’s fire behavior is being monitored closely with the addition of extra crews and engines. There will be opportunities for direct attack by crews and air support due to moderate terrain and sparse vegetation.

The weather at the Sasabe weather station 11 miles southeast of the fire recorded moderate conditions early Saturday afternoon —  38 to 45 percent relative humidity, 90 degrees, and 13 mph winds out of the south-southwest under partly cloudy skies.

Updated at 12:19 p.m. MDT June 18, 2022

The staff from the Kitt Peak observatory provided this brief update at about noon on Saturday:

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.

Updated at 9:45 a.m. MDT June 18, 2022

Contreras Fire, June 17, 2022 Arizona
Contreras Fire, June 17, 2022. Inciweb.

The scheduled mapping flight for the Contreras Fire Friday night had to be cancelled due to weather, most likely clouds that obscured the view from the aircraft. A flight Friday afternoon determined it had burned 17,646 acres. At 2 a.m. MDT Saturday a satellite detected through a hole in the clouds heat west of the Kitt Peak observatories and west of Highway 386.

The fire reached the general area of the observatories at 2 a.m. Friday, but no information has been released about any possible damage to the telescopes or dozens of structures.

The Sasabe weather station 11 miles southeast of the fire recorded 0.03 inch of rain Friday that occurred around 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. The relative humidity rose to 71 percent Friday night. The forecast for Saturday is mostly cloudy with a 30 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms through the day, with a high of about 86 degrees, a relative humidity in the low 30s, and winds out of the southwest at 13 to 18 mph with gusts to 26.

Updated at 6:48 p.m. MDT June 17, 2022

Map of the Contreras Fire June 17, 2022 Kitt Peak observatory
Map of the north end of the Contreras Fire at Kitt Peak at about 3:30 p.m. MDT June 17, 2022. The facilities associated with the observatories appear as white objects.

The Contreras Fire was mapped in the mid-afternoon on Friday June 17. The new information confirms reports from authorities that the fire reached the observatory facilities at Kitt Peak but it is not possible to determine from this data if there was damage to the structures. The fire came very close to the primary large cluster of buildings near the peak, as well as the other facilities to the southwest north of Highway 386, including the UArizona 12-meter Telescope.

North end of the Contreras Fire, Kitt Peak, 3-D map
North end of the Contreras Fire, Kitt Peak, 3-D map at approximately 3:30 p.m. MDT June 17, 2022, looking north.
Map of the Contreras Fire June 17, 2022
Map of the Contreras Fire. The red line was the perimeter at about 3:30 p.m. MDT June 17, 2022. The white line was the perimeter about 24 hours before.

The growth on Thursday and Friday brings the size up to approximately 17,000 acres.

3:52 p.m. MDT June 17, 2022

Contreras Fire burning on the slopes of the Kitt Peak
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.

The Contreras Fire in Southern Arizona burned up the steep brush-covered slopes of Kitt Peak Mountain at 2 a.m. Friday crossing Kitt Peak Road (Road 386) and reaching the Kitt Peak National Observatory, a complex of more than 20 telescopes, one of the largest gatherings of astronomical instruments in the northern hemisphere. The Observatory staff said Friday, “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 fire 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.

Contreras Fire
Contreras Fire burning on the slopes of Kitt Peak mountain early in the morning Friday June 17, 2022. In the foreground is NRAO’s Very Long Baseline Array Dish. Credit: KPNO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA

The Contreras Fire started from a lightning strike on June 11. It is being managed by a Type 2 Eastern Area Incident Management Team led by Incident Commander Brian Pisarek. It is 20 miles north of the US/Mexico border and 16 miles east of Sells, AZ. As of Thursday morning it had burned about 11,500 acres.

Judging from photos, it appears that the copious fuel below and near the structures would under hot, dry, and windy conditions cause a fire moving up the slopes to create massive amounts of heat, long flame lengths, and thousands of lofted burning embers.

Nicholas U. Mayall 4-meter Telescope at Kitt Peak
File photo of Nicholas U. Mayall 4-meter Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Credit: KPNO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/P. Marenfeld.

Clouds Thursday night prevented the scheduled infrared mapping flight, so we do not have an updated map.

Thursday night the decision was made to remove some of the trees and brush near the observatory below the southern ridge. Fire crews also cleared brush around individual domes, critical infrastructure, and propane tanks.

At 3 a.m. MDT on Friday a satellite detected heat near the observatories on the south and southwest sides of the mountain. It also detected rapid spread on the east side of the fire south of Alambre Valley.

Contreras Fire Reaches Kitt Peak National Observatory
Contreras Fire burning on the slopes of Kitt Peak mountain Thursday evening June 16, 2022.

Five helicopters have been assigned to support suppression efforts today. Dense shrub cover below Kitt Peak is allowing the fire to make rapid upslope growth. Electrical supply to the Observatory has been suspended by the utility provider to mitigate unintentional sparking. More hand crews have been ordered and are expected to arrive today.

On the south end of the fire near Elkhorn Ranch, structure protection crews are utilizing fire control lines, sprinkler systems and other suppression methods to ensure the safety of the ranch community, visitors and its inholdings.

When an updated map becomes available we will add it to this article. Below is one of the maps in the June 16 article.

3-D map of the Contreras Fire
3-D map of the Contreras Fire looking north at 10:53 p.m. MDT June 15, 2022.


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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

3 thoughts on “Contreras Fire reaches the observatories at Kitt Peak”

  1. Jay, you are quite right. The observatory site is leased from the To’hono Nation and there are strict rules about leaving the vegetation and topography alone. A reasonable price to pay for access to probably the best site for astronomy left in the continental US.

  2. You’d think they’d reduce the fuel loading around an observatory that’s so significant and worth a ton of money – prior to a major fire coming through. Nope! Just like most homeowners they rely on forestry techs to try to do it just in the nick of time at immense risk to themselves.
    Great foresight..that’s freaking ironic

    1. It’s not quite so simple, most of if not all the observatories will be leased and under stringent environmental rules to leave as little trace as possible. They are probably not allowed to do major clearing. Speculation obviously I am not privy to details


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