Press Release

Florida Fire Prompts Evacuation of Mount Hopkins, Madera Canyon

By SpaceRef Editor
July 15, 2005
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The Florida Fire, 11 miles east of Green Valley, prompted the evacuation of all observatory personnel from Mount Hopkins and staff at the Santa Rita Experimental Station on Tuesday, July 12.

On Wednesday July 13, growth of the fire forced the evacuation of Madera Canyon.

The lightning-caused fire started July 7 on Florida Peak.

Forest Service officials said high temperatures and a wind event caused substantial fire growth to the southern perimeter and threatened additional structures, which prompted the evacuation. The fire has made major runs to the northeast and west into Madera Canyon expanding to 11,375 acres. More than 792 firefighting personnel are battling the blaze. Burn out operations are expected to continue today, if conditions permit, as fire fighters secure containment lines on the north and east side of the fire. The fire is 20 percent contained.

As of July 14, the Florida fire is continuing its southward movement, slowed by the increased humidity and cloud cover, said Steward Observatory astronomer Gary Schmidt and Barbara Russ of the MMTO office in an all-Steward e-mail message.

The part of the fire that is heading in the direction of the MMTO has progressed partway down the slope to Josephine Saddle and is within a mile of the telescope.

Fire crews have cleared the summit of scrub oak and other brush to 50 feet downhill, Schmidt and Russ report. A large area around the observatory has been soaked with wet slurry, and crews feel they are holding the fire at bay around the observatory at the present time.

Dennis Smith and Ricardo Ortiz of the MMTO were allowed to visit the site yesterday (Wednesday, July 13) to complete the sealing of fresh air louvers to the telescope building. They also moved expensive equipment away from the outside walls and windows. All visits now require the donning of fire protection suits.

Fire crews themselves have been told that they are to abandon the summit if and when the fire reaches the base of Josephine Saddle. If the winds were to pick up, it would be a very brief run upslope from there to the observatories, with no quick escape route, Schmidt and Russ said.

“There’s a lot of angst here,” Whipple Observatory public information officer Dan Brocious said. “You’d like to pick up a shovel and help dig a fire line. But we’re helping the firefighters by letting them know what we have on the mountain in terms of water, sprinkler systems, etc. that could be of use. Water from the observatory’s 250,000 gallon water storage tank is available for back sprayers and trucks.”

The MMT is operated by the MMT Observatory (MMTO), a joint venture of the Smithsonian Institution and The University of Arizona. The MMT is located on the summit of Mount Hopkins, the second highest peak in the Santa Rita Range of the Coronado National Forest, approximately 30 miles south of Tucson. The MMT is on the grounds of the Smithsonian’s Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory (FLWO), which operates a base camp and a Visitors Center at Amado, Ariz.

Mark Heitlinger, Santa Rita’s range manager, said the Santa Rita Experimental Station was saved from the fire and currently looks like a small oasis surrounded by the remnants of a backburn.

Because of the fire prevention and preparation done by UA personnel, Heitlinger said the fire management team saw the potential to save the 13 buildings on 25 acres at the headquarters of the Santa Rita Experimental Range (SRER), which is 40 miles south of Tucson.

For years, station staff have prepared for possible wildfires by pruning back dead limbs and grasses surrounding structures. Staff have also undergone fire coordination training, reserved 50,000 gallons of water and maintained equipment.

Firefighters this week hand dug a fire break around the entire 25 acre site and set up a sprinkler system around the perimeter of the head quarters. They coated all the building with compressed air foam and cleared any excess brush. They then set back burns or back fires so when the fire slowly trailed down the mountain on Wednesday, it came up to the previously burned area and burned itself out around the station.

“The Arizona State Land Department in 2001 produced a suppression plan for the experimental range, and we had it in place,” Heitlinger said. “From my standpoint, there have been two key ingredients to our success and that’s preparation and coordination. The University can be really proud how we came through this. We have a model and it can be used as an example on how to survive this.”

Established in 1902, the 80 square mile range is the oldest experimental range in the country. SRER is used to study range recovery from drought and overgrazing, as well as sustainable grazing practices.

All public access to the Madera Canyon Recreation Area and access roads are restricted.

SpaceRef staff editor.