Bushfire hits Australia’s largest observatory

By AG Staff with AAP 14 January 2013
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A fire on Sunday night damaged Siding Springs Observatory in Coonabarabran, site of the nation’s largest telescope.

FIREFIGHTERS ARE HOPING TO assess what damage a “large and dangerous” bushfire has had on a world-leading observatory in northern NSW today.

Staff from the Siding Spring Observatory – which is home to more than $100 million worth of research equipment – in Warrumbungle National Park were evacuated on Sunday to nearby Coonabarabran due to the blaze, which also destroyed at least two properties.

A watch-and-act remains in place for the fire, which has burnt through more than 32,000ha of bush, scrub and grass.

Overnight the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) have been focused on fighting the blaze. But RFS spokeswoman Laura Ryan said earlier today that they were expecting to enter the site and assess the damage today.

Damage to observatory due to NSW bushfire

“We have got reports that the main telescope has survived,” Laura said yesterday. “As the sun comes up we are hoping to get a clearer view.”

A statement from the Australian National University, managers of the observatory, said: “An initial assessment indicates that five buildings have been severely affected or damaged, including the lodge used to accommodate visiting researchers and a number of cottages and sheds.

“A fire has been extinguished at the Visitors Centre this morning. We expect the Visitor Centre has been severely damaged.”

The statement added: “An initial visual assessment indicated that no telescopes appear to have received major damage, but the impact of the fire on the instruments will not be known until later today.”

ANU visiting astronomer, Professor Joss Bland Hawthorn, told Australian Geographic that the lodge accommodation block had been burned to the ground, but the telescopes seemed to be largely unscathed.

“The damage by the fire seems not to have been too severe to the telescopes themselves,” he says. “I would expect that they will be back on their feet in a matter of weeks.”

Fire control methods may have saved telecopes

Joss says the good news is that the observatory itself has been spared. “It’s a world-famous observatory and it has a lot of very exciting projects going on right now on all of the telescopes up there, including the Anglo Australian Telescope (AAT),” he says.

“All of those telescopes have been spared so you would hope that means that the operations are not affected terribly in the long term, but in the short term of course there will be delays.”

Bushfire prevention measures, such as controlled fires around the site and mesh to repel embers from the telescopes, aided in protecting the observatory.

“The Mount Stromlo Observatory fire [In Canberra in 2003], was a motivating factor to make us do a better job of security at Siding Spring Observatory,” Joss says. “The damage could have been a lot worse, but it was not as bad as expected because of all the measures that have been put in place.”

Images from SSO webcams on the telescopes (below) show fires around the site late on Sunday night. (Credit: ANU/SSO)

More than 65 firefighters and 17 trucks were on site in the early hours of Monday morning, with more expected to arrive throughout Monday. Meanwhile, more than 110 people have been evacuated to Tattersalls Hotel at nearby Baradine, as the RFS warns people not to return home.

Fires burning across the state

Laura says the RFS could not give any indication at the moment as to when it might be safe for locals to return to the area. “It’s another reminder that fires can strike quickly and can be incredibly dangerous and damaging,” she says.

Across the state, however, firefighters are expecting some reprieve with milder weather conditions forecast and winds tending to the south. There are no total fire bans across the state, with fire dangers listed as moderate and high throughout southern NSW and along the coast, with very high fire danger in the north-west.

About 170 blazes are burning through bush, scrub and grass with about 50 of those out of control.

The SSO is home to all of ANU’s research telescopes. These include the 3.9m diameter Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) of the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO), the largest optical telescope in Australia; the ANU 2.3m telescope and the Skymapper Telescope.