Buildings at National Observatory destroyed by wildfire in Arizona

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A wildfire outside of Tucson, Arizona has claimed four buildings at the Kitt Peak National Observatory, a major astronomical research centre.

The buildings included some housing and two minor buildings, with all of the telescopes remaining, the National Science Foundation (NSF) said.

The blaze, nicknamed the Contreras Fire, started on June 11 and has swelled to over 20,000 acres — half the size of Washington, DC — and prompted an evacuation of the observatory. As of Sunday evening, it was around 40 per contained.

The observatory, run by the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab, hosts multiple telescopes and other astronomical equipment used for in space research. While the scientific structures appear to have been unharmed, a full survey of potential damage can only happen once the area is safe to return to, NSF said.

Fire crews are still battling flames in the area.

The Kitt Peak Observatory, located southwest of Tucson in the Tohono O’odham Nation, hosts a variety of telescopes and instruments used for studying space, including reserach on dark energy and planets beyond our solar system. In the 1970s, the largest telescope at the observatory first discovered methane ice on Pluto.

The Contreras Fire is believed to have started from a lightning strike and is one of several large fires currently burning in the southwest during an already very-active fire season.

As of last Friday, almost 3 million acres had burned across the US so far this year — about three times the size of Rhode Island — according to the National Interagency Fire Center. That’s significantly more than the 10-year average of just over 1.1 million acres.

Wildfires in the American West are expected to become much more common and intense as the climate crisis continues, fuelling heat and drought that can lead to flames. Recently, a report found that many properties out west have a serious risk of encountering wildfires in the next 30 years.

And current drought conditions in the region likely aren’t helping. Much of this area of Arizona is currently in “severe” drought conditions, according to the federal government’s drought monitor — as a decades-long megadrought continues its reign in the West.

The government’s information hub on the Contreras Fire notes that “fuel moisture continues to be at record lows for the season.”

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