West Texas Fires Narrowly Miss McDonald Observatory

Fires in West Texas

A massive and fast-moving wildfire in West Texas has narrowly missed the University’s McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis.

Officials confirmed today that the blaze known as the Rock House Fire came within 15 miles of the observatory, which sits upon two secluded peaks in the Davis Mountains, before a wind change sent the fire in another direction.

The celebrated research outpost is run by UT’s Astronomy Department and features cutting-edge tools for studying the night sky. The $17 million Hobby-Eberly Telescope, one of only a few 10-meter telescopes in the world, will soon be modified as part of a high-profile, $34 million project to study dark energy.

“My understanding is that the threat to McDonald from the Rock House Fire is largely gone,” superintendent Tom Barnes says. “But the season is just starting. We’re not out of the woods yet.”

Observatory officials have long grappled with wildfires and have some resources for battling them. There are three fire trucks at the McDonald Observatory, as well as a modified pickup truck with a water tank. Many on-site staff are trained to fight fires, and nine are members of the Fort Davis Volunteer Fire Department.

Several observatory staffers spent three straight days last week battling the massive blaze in and around Fort Davis, Barnes says.

This particular fire dwarfed standard West Texas blazes, and Texas Forest Service officials executed a controlled burn near the observatory to try and cut it off.

“It was truly extraordinary, both in its speed and size,” Barnes says. “When you looked out to the east, the whole horizon — the entire thing — was on fire. We never could have dealt with it.”

At a command post meeting last Saturday, fire teams from as far away as Frisco, Austin, Katy, Buda, and Fort Stockton had come in to help.

Observatory officials did evacuate staffers with children and people with respiratory problems as the approaching fire cast a heavy, smoky fog on the mountaintops. Last week the observatory lost power, but it was restored today and the visitor center has reopened.

The Rock House Fire has now burned some 200,000 acres but is about 75 percent controlled.

“When you looked out to the east, the whole horizon — the entire thing — was on fire. We never could have dealt with it.”

Coincidentally, fire consultants will be visiting the observatory today to complete a long-awaited groundwater study the University commissioned to examine better fire-prep methods.

The entire McDonald Observatory is valued at more than $250 million.

“After the controlled burn,” Barnes said, “we’re now pretty safe from the northeast, but that’s it.”

Officials know that fire season has just started and will continue until June. “We have to be very careful for the next two or three months,” Barnes says, “or we could face a disaster.”

Photo courtesy of Frank Cianciolo/McDonald Observatory


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