Weather Helping Firefighters Defending Arizona Observatory, Mountain Communities

Light rain and high humidity again are aiding firefighters trying to stop a pair of wildfires that were threatening a multimillion-dollar observatory and nearly 100 summer homes atop Mount Graham.


SAFFORD, Ariz. (AP) -- Light rain and high humidity again are aiding firefighters trying to stop a pair of wildfires that were threatening a multimillion-dollar observatory and nearly 100 summer homes atop Mount Graham.

Raindrops fell Thursday and early Friday with meteorologists predicting more precipitation through this weekend and into next week.

By Saturday, the Nuttall and Gibson fires had joined through burnout operations and were 45 percent contained. The fires have charred a combined 27,272 acres on Mount Graham since lightning sparked them in late June.

Fire managers said Friday they were optimistic about their ability to save the 74 cabins in Turkey Flat.

``It seems like we're going to be dodging that bullet,'' said Dean McAlister, fire management officer for the Coronado National Forest.

High temperatures and low humidity had been driving the wildfires threatening the Mount Graham International Observatory, Turkey Flat and Columbine, a community of about 15 cabins.

Paul Summerfelt, incident commander for the firefighting team, said the showers have helped reduce the risk to the observatory, an advanced astronomy facility run by the University of Arizona.

``If we have a good day today, we'll be sitting pretty well,'' Summerfelt said.

However, he cautioned that fire crews weren't in the clear yet.

``We're optimistic but we can't take our eyes off what's there,'' he said. ``We still have to deal with this incident.''

Four Hot Shot crews - about 80 firefighters - were sent home Saturday and another two crews were off resting for two days. The fire has caused no major injuries so far.

Crews planned to finish up fire lines along the east flank of the fire Saturday. Suppression lines along the western and southern flanks were completed and holding up, officials said.

Safford resident Judy Rhoads, whose Turkey Flat cabin has been in the family for 60 years, said the weather was a miracle.

``This is the first time we've had any inkling of optimism from firefighters, and that is really a relief,'' Rhodes said Friday.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano flew over the fire-damaged area Friday and then attended a community meeting in Safford.

``As we go out in these forests, they are tinder, tinder dry. We really cannot be too careful where forests are concerned,'' Napolitano said.

The 17,100-acre Gibson fire remained within a quarter-mile of the observatory and had not burned up the drainage leading to Turkey Flat as had been feared.

The Nuttall fire, which had burned 10,530 acres, remained about 1 1/2 miles from Columbine.

The two fires were approaching the observatory from different directions, but crews had taken defensive measures to protect the facility, home to some of the world's most advanced telescopes. The observatory was nearly surrounded by lines cut by bulldozers and reinforced with burned out areas and a sprinkler system.

Authorities said the firefighting effort has cost $7 million so far.

The only property damage has been to the steps of a lookout tower and to a cinderblock structure used to store electrical equipment on Heliograph Peak, on the southwest corner of the Gibson Fire.