Monday, July 05, 2004

Too Close for Comfort
Firefighters widened a defensive ring around a mountaintop observatory Monday, trying to hold back two wildfires and protect a powerful telescope under construction.

The crews in southeastern Arizona used bulldozers and fire retardant around the Mount Graham International Observatory, which has two operating telescopes and the $120 million soon-to-be-completed Large Binocular Telescope. The ground crews were helped by an air tanker plane dropping retardant.

'The building's not going to burn, but the smoke and heat could do some real damage to the instruments inside,' said Pruett Small, a fire official.

Researchers from around the world use the observatory, which is an extension of the University of Arizona. When fully operational in 2005, the Large Binocular Telescope will be the world's most technologically advanced optical telescope. It's expected to yield images nearly 10 times sharper than those from the Hubble Space Telescope (news - web sites).

The observatory, consisting of eight buildings, encompasses 8 1/2 acres of pine forest on Mount Graham's 10,470-foot Emerald Peak and is surrounded by a 200-foot-wide clearing. It also has a sprinkler system that officials said would be turned on if flames came within a quarter-mile.

One of the two threatening fires was a lightning-sparked blaze that had grown to more than 6,200 acres by Monday. It was burning less than a mile southeast of the $200 million-plus observatory.
Two hundred feet should be sufficient to keep the flames away but not the intense heat - I would have thought for a $200+ facility in an area subject to natural as well as man-caused infernos they'd have done more.


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