Rain, humidity help Arizona firefighters defending mountaintop observatory

SAFFORD, Ariz. (AP) - Heavier rain was expected Friday and into the weekend, a welcome forecast for firefighters protecting multimillion-dollar telescopes at a southeastern Arizona observatory threatened by two wildfires.

Light rain fell Thursday on rugged Mount Graham, helping to raise the humidity level as high as 40 percent, well above the 15 percent it had been in recent days, said Brent Wachter, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

The low humidity and high temperatures had been driving the wildfires threatening the $200 million Mount Graham International Observatory and two communities of summer homes.

The higher humidity could slow the wildfire's growth, but it also created the potential for high winds that could spread the flames and lightning strikes that could spark more fires. The fires were both started by lightning.

"This is a bittersweet day," Wachter said.

Firefighters focused their efforts Thursday on protecting the nearly 100 homes in Turkey Flat and Columbine on the flanks of the mountain. They also reinforced protection for the observatory.

On the road leading to Turkey Flat, a group of firefighters spent part of Thursday cutting down brush in preparation for a backburn, a fire set intentionally to clear out vegetation that feeds a wildfire.

"You don't want to see anybody lose valuables or possessions," said firefighter Stuart Rodeffer. "Homes are people's lives."

Officials said the fires, which have charred more than 26,000 acres, had grown no closer to either community by midday Thursday.

One fire, estimated at 16,879 acres, was burning up a canyon and officials were worried it would reach the 74 cabins at Turkey Flat. The fire also was within a quarter-mile of the observatory.

Another fire, which had burned 9,941 acres, was about 1 1/2 to two miles from Columbine, a community of about 15 homes and cabins.

The fires were approaching the observatory from different directions, but officials were hopeful they could save the facility. It was nearly surrounded by defensive lines cut by bulldozers and reinforced with burned-out areas and a sprinkler system. Crews hoped to enhance the line Thursday.

The blazes were considered 25 percent contained, according to authorities.

Elsewhere, officials planned to keep closed for a few more days the only direct highway linking Phoenix to Payson, a popular summer destination, because of erratic fire behavior on a 109,900-acre blaze in the Tonto National Forest in central Arizona.

The fire crossed State Route 87 on Wednesday night. The lightning-caused fire, which started June 24, was considered 25 percent contained by Thursday.

In central Washington state, one of two wildfires burning near Lake Chelan was declared fully contained Thursday evening.

The fire, about three miles east of the lake and the Columbia River, had burned across about 4,205 acres, said Carson Berglund, fire information officer. A voluntary evacuation order for about 45 homes in the area was lifted Wednesday night.

In Alaska, cooler, wetter weather slowed two fires northeast of Fairbanks, but fire officials said a soaking rain would be needed to seriously reduce fire danger.


On the Net:

Mount Graham Observatory: http://mgpc3.as.arizona.edu

National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov

Southwest Wildland Fires: http://www.fs.fed.us/r3/fire/


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment