Thursday, July 6, 2017

Arizona Aflame!

All of you have likely seen the nightly news and the reports that the western US is suffering simultaneously record high temperatures and dozens of forest fires. Even in my last post here I talked about a fire detouring my trip to the Canyon, and a glimpse of the fire showed one of the ancient cinder cones as if the volcano had come back to life! We've had close to a dozen within a hundred miles of Tucson the last few months, but two in particular have attracted a lot of attention. 

Most recently, the Burro Fire started about a week ago. It's cause is not yet known, but wasn't lightning as it was a storm-free day when it started 30 June. It is in a popular area for "wildcat shooting", so that remains a possible cause. While on the east end of the Catalina range just north of Tucson, it is not directly endangering any houses, but is very near the only access road to Summerhaven atop Mount Lemmon, so as a precaution, the mountain has been evacuated. Yesterday (5 July), I flew to Chicago and was surprised when we took off to the west, and circled around, flying along the front range of the Catalinas. We were not near the main part of the fire, but what did become clearly visible were the slurry paths from the aerial tankers as they controlled the southern extent of the blaze.  Current estimates have it over 25,000 acres burned, and only 11% contained...

Another major fire that had attracted my attention several weeks ago was the Frye Fire atop Mount Graham. Now burning for a month, it was initially not actively fought as it was a lightning-caused fire, not near any structures in a remote part of the range. Ten days later it had exploded wildly and threatened the major observatory at the peak, as well as cabins at several locations.

Now I'm a little paternal when it comes to the telescopes up there, as I worked on making all three of them! While I was at the Canyon a couple weeks ago I was looking for news to see if the scopes survived. Thankfully they did! Troy Wells was with firefighters atop the LBT structure and took the following video. Interestingly, it is mis-identified as being in Utah, and it is also reversed left-to-right, but the video is no less amazing. As the fire bears down on the structure, the cavalry arrives in the form of a DC-10 with a load of slurry!

The Observatories there literally appeared to be saved by that drop. An inspection a couple days later by the director of the Vatican Telescope resulted in the following report...

I took a Sunday visit to a friend living in Safford, just east of Mount Graham on 2 July. The fire was still very evident even if the danger to the Observatories and cabins have passed. At left is a view of the only access to the mountain - highway 366, Swift Trail. Smoke hangs heavy over the eastern slopes, and while not easily visible in this shot, there was a sheriff and a roadblock a kilometer down the road. I was heading home about sunset, driving south paralleling the mountain and suddenly noticed the lighting had changed! A glance towards the sunset showed the sun hanging low directly over the main column of smoke. That was certainly worth a stop for a photograph!

Now Mount Graham is another waypoint on the flight to Chicago - it normally is visible outside the left window as we jet to the northeast. I paid the extra fee to get a port side window and was rewarded with the following view at left! Normally the 3 telescopes are clearly visible as we pass, but the smoke from the fire totally obscured the entire mountaintop!

Interestingly, I had also packed my IR-modified camera. This camera has a filter that ONLY allows infrared light to the sensor, instead of being blocked out like most cameras. As a result of the longer wavelengths used, blue skies get darkened and the chlorophyll of healthy plants appear almost white. At right is the infrared view. Most interestingly, the smoke is all but invisible! Blackened burn scars are much more easily visible against the white of normal forest growth. They were taken only a few moments apart, so the only real differences are the wavelengths of observation... The current status of the Frye Fire is about 48,000 acres burned and is about 66% contained.

WARNING!  Anaglyphs ahead!
For those of you who are fond of my anaglyph 3D images (I know there are a few of you out there!), I've combined image pairs taken from the plane to make 3D images. At left is again the color shot at visible wavelengths. You will see the 3D image with using the red/blue glasses with the red filter on the left.

At right is similarly the infrared anaglyph. I am truly shocked at how well the longer IR wavelengths penetrate the smoke of the fire. The 3D effect also seems stronger too - perhaps because of the mostly black and white image and its effect on the tinted anaglyph.

And believe it or not, the LBT is visible through what is likely about the thickest part of the smoke in the IR shot. Check out this full-resolution shot at left of the above image. Just under the center of the cloud at the upper profile of the mountain, the silver box of the LBT can be spotted!

While fire season is hanging on as long as the summer rainy season is staying away, it won't be long till the rains and humidity will extinguish the AZ fires at least. Meanwhile, I'm happy to be back in the green Midwest for a few weeks. I'm even looking forward to some hot muggy days - can't be much worse than the 115 degree days we've survived in the desert!

I'm editing this entry as I just finished a new anaglyph of the slurry lines at the Burro Fire, and it was too cool not to include! Shown at left, the 3D anaglyph shows how the slurry lines were laid down mostly along ridge lines to prevent the fire's spread. That is all - enjoy!

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