SAFFORD, Ariz. (AP) – A mountainside wildfire was within a quarter-mile of a $200 million mountaintop observatory Wednesday, but firefighters were most concerned about summer homes in two small communities that were in the path of the flames.

Crews continued cutting vegetation Wednesday in the Mount Graham communities, where cabins have been drenched with water and wrapped with aluminum to deflect heat.

Officials were hopeful that they could save the Mount Graham International Observatory, which was surrounded by a broad cleared area and had sprinklers. The same blaze nearing the observatory was about 1½ to 2 miles from Columbine, a community of some 15 homes and cabins. The second blaze was between the observatory and Turkey Flat.

It was within a mile of Turkey Flat on Wednesday and officials were worried that it would strike the community of about 74 summer homes, said fire crew spokesman Bill Duemling.

The two fires had earlier prompted evacuation of the observatory and both communities.

“That has the potential to build heat and start marching up the canyon,” said Dan Oltrogge, an incident commander for the team fighting the fire. “The weather is not giving us much of a break today.”

Officials said the blazes had charred more than 22,100 acres combined. Both were 10 percent contained.

Despite the firefighting efforts, some Turkey Flat residents feared the blaze would reach the community’s cabins, many of which have been passed down in families for generations.

“I just have a feeling that it’s going to be all gone,” said Judy Rhoads, adding that she and her grandchildren cry at the thought of the family’s cabin burning.

Richard Lines said he stares at the mountain range from his office window in Safford each day and fears the fire will sweep through Turkey Flat, where he owns a cabin.

“It’s been kind of gut-wrenching to watch this fire for a week. It just gets closer and closer and closer,” he said. “The closer it gets, the more your heart goes to your throat.”

Home to some of the world’s most powerful telescopes, the observatory encompasses eight buildings and 81/2 acres of pine forest on Mount Graham’s 10,470-foot Emerald Peak. Although its metal structures should withstand the flames, officials said smoke and heat could damage delicate instruments.

The observatory has two operating telescopes and a $120 million telescope that is under construction. When fully operational next year, the Large Binocular Telescope will be the world’s most advanced optical telescope, capable of producing images nearly 10 times sharper than those from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Scientists feared that the fires also could devastate the only population of Mount Graham red squirrels, an endangered species already imperiled by insect outbreaks, habitat loss and long-term drought.

Elsewhere in Arizona, a fire had blackened 90,500 acres of the Tonto National Forest east of Payson, a town of some 14,000 people. The blaze was 22 percent contained on Wednesday and was not threatening any homes or communities.

An 80-acre fire southwest of the city forced the evacuation of about 85 homes, said Emily Garber, a spokeswoman for the crew fighting the fire.

In Alaska, hundreds of residents evacuated last week because of a huge wildfire northeast of Fairbanks were allowed to return home Wednesday.



On the Net:

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

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

AP-ES-07-07-04 1953EDT


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