Crews protect Texas observatory with fire of their own
A picture taken Sunday at Texas' McDonald Observatory shows both a wildfire and a controlled burn meant to protect the facility.
April 20th, 2011
01:41 AM ET

Crews protect Texas observatory with fire of their own

The McDonald Observatory in West Texas' remote Davis Mountains is home to one of the world's largest optical telescopes and the StarDate radio program. It's also a residence for about 80 staff and family members, some of whom remained as fire crews defended the property from one of the wildfires that have devastated the state this month.

As the wildfire crept up a canyon perhaps 1 mile from the center late Saturday, a regional disaster team set a controlled fire on a nearby peak, aiming to consume the brush that otherwise could have led the wildfire to the observatory, staff member Frank Cianciolo said.

The controlled burn seems to have worked, and the wildfire - though not contained - is burning elsewhere, he said in a telephone interview Tuesday night.

Cianciolo - a senior program coordinator at the visitor center for the University of Texas-run observatory - has stayed on the property for most of the time since the wildfire reached nearby Fort Davis on April 9, taking the pictures you see in this post and several others.

"It was exhausting, to have to worry about ... whether the fire was going to come roaring our way," he said. "Without having the visitors here - because we were closed down much of that time - I didn't have a whole lot to do, so I put myself in charge of getting pictures to document it."

This picture, taken from the observatory grounds on April 9, shows the glow of the wildfire about 8 miles away.

Some of Cianciolo's pictures show the property's distant view of the wildfire on April 9, which was burning some homes in the town of Fort Davis about eight miles away. The swift fire had started miles to the south only hours earlier, giving Fort Davis' volunteer firefighters and residents little time to react, he said.

The wildfire and its thick smoke prompted the center to close a couple times since April 9, most recently Sunday through Tuesday. The center - which Cianciolo says receives about 60,000 visitors per year - intends to reopen Wednesday as long as the fire stays away, observatory spokeswoman Rebecca Johnson said.

This particular wildfire - named the Rockhouse Fire - has burned nearly 200,000 acres, Texas Forest Service spokeswoman Nicole Hawk said Tuesday.

Though the staff was never ordered to evacuate, some did, including Cianciolo for one day when the smoke was too thick for him to take.

"We are incredibly grateful for the firefighters who've been up here for over a week now," he said. "These guys are incredible, going up in these conditions that are incredibly dangerous and rescuing the area, basically."

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Filed under: Texas
soundoff (47 Responses)
  1. JimBob

    Poor McDonalds. First, someone drives their car into one of their job fairs and now this. Everyone should go buy a McFlurry to show their support.

    April 20, 2011 at 11:40 am | Report abuse |
  2. sheil

    The McDonald observatory has nothing to do with McDonalds. You can go by a McFlurry if it makes you feel better though. This sight has been priceless this morning.

    April 20, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Report abuse |
  3. TvNYC

    I'm not sad and I do not have anxiety. I'm clean at heart and I pray every day for everyone. What's sad is you speaking to me in that manner! What's also said is how ignorant people are that they cannot see the signs that we see everyday. So mind your own business and I'm only stating opinions. Good bye!

    April 20, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Report abuse |
  4. TvNYC

    For your information my IQ score is 146 and that is a fact!

    See ya!

    April 20, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
  5. banasy

    TvNYC: The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

    April 20, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
  6. John

    There was never any real danger because Frankie C. was on the job!

    April 22, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
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