2022 wildfire shaped how Kitt Peak observatory prepares for monsoon

Kitt Peak Fire
Posted at 3:22 PM, Jun 20, 2024

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — Vivian Segundo has worked in the gift shop at Kitt Peak National Observatory for 26 years. Combing through items on a shelf in the shop, she rearranged memorabilia.

As she did so, she remembered her nephew Dane Manuel who died at the age of 27 when lightning struck him while mowing the football field at the middle school where he was a coach.

“The kids loved him. It tore a lot of hearts,” Segundo said. “He’d make everybody laugh...he was an outgoing person.”


Lightning-related deaths were something Segundo never thought would happen until it happened to her own nephew.

The dangers of lightning are very apparent to the staff and scientists atop Kitt Peak. The Contreras Fire in 2022, which was caused by lightning, reached the peak and the observatory complex from miles away. The observatory’s associate director Michelle Edwards said they lost two power lines because of it, meaning they didn’t have line power.

The 2022 fire left a lasting impact, with Kitt Peak having to evacuate people during last year's monsoon because they were seeing rock and mud slides from the mountain. The rocks and dirt had been destabilized because of the fire.

Since then, Edwards said the observatory has been taking more safety precautions than they had previously been.

“Our best efforts have been to do brush removal…cut back some of the trees that are directly laying on top of buildings,” she said.

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Wildfires leave behind destabilized terrain prone to flooding and debris slides during monsoon.

Edwards said they also installed a lightning monitor.

“That basically sends out alerts to critical people throughout the summit to let them know that lightning strikes could be imminent,” she said.

A lot of the telescopes look for rain, cloud cover, and lightning and most of their domes are safe from lightning. They also have lightning rods that channel the lightning down.


When lightning is detected, Edwards said they call a lightning watch'.

“No one is allowed to be outside, outside of the buildings," said Edwards. "They can continue to be in the buildings and do some work. Generally all of the domes will also close.”

Edwards said Kitt Peak is planning to install more lightning monitoring at other locations on the summit.

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A new lightning detection system sits atop Kitt Peak's solar telescope.

Segundo is hoping everybody stays safe when lightning strikes, despite how spectacular monsoon lightning storms look. She hopes her nephew's death can serve as a cautionary tale.

“It’s very pretty but it’s very dangerous,” she said about the lightning.

See KGUN 9's new original production, Monsoon Watch 2024:

Monsoon Watch 2024

Andrew Christiansen is a reporter for KGUN 9. Before joining the team, Andrew reported in Corpus Christi, Texas for KRIS6 News, Action 10 News and guest reported in Spanish for Telemundo Corpus Christi. Share your story ideas with Andrew by emailing or by connecting on Facebook, or Twitter.