September 25, 2018

24.04.11: The McDonald Observatory “Dodges the Bullet.”

Holy Cats… the landscape around the McDonald Observatory in west Texas has been looking very other-worldly over the past week, as wild fires have raged dangerously close to the complex. Home of the 9.2 meter Hobby-Eberly Telescope, the observatory survived the fires after a dramatic back burn was conducted to consume any ground material that could fuel further fires.

Power was cut to the observatory by the approaching fires on April 11th, and operations and public tours and observing only recently resumed a few days ago. Even the domes were kept shuttered, to protect the optics from damage by smoke and debris. This all comes at a time when the weather conditions in West Texas have been the worst in the state’s history. This also highlights a prime threat to astronomical observatories; places that are highest and driest (i.e. prime dark sky locations) are also the most forest fire prone during drought. These areas are also remote and undeveloped (another good reason to put telescopes there) but also tough terrain to fight forest fires in. If left to burn uncontrolled, these firestorms can create a massive wall of flame as warm afternoon air rushes up a mountain side destroying everything in its path. As anyone who remembers the Mount Stromlo observatory tragedy in Australia in 2003 will tell you, we can and have lost observatories to wild fires in the past; staff in that situation had less than 30 minutes to evacuate. The Steward and Mt. Lemon observatory complexes just missed a similar fate in that same year; I remember watching plane after plane departing Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, Arizona that summer, as they headed for nightly battles with blazes that hung above the city. These telescopes are a national resource, and we can and should do everything we can to protect them. Thanks to the heroic smoke jumpers that once again came from all over the nation to protect the McDonald observatory… we need to keep these telescopes open for business!

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