Well - I have to go back to Kitt Peak to operate the 2.3 meter Bok telescope for the astronomers again. I pack the van up with a few clothes for the weekend, the requisite camera equipment (being a photographer/ technojunky, I never go anywhere without a half-ton of photo equipment) and the hopes that I might get to watch/photograph a few distant thunderstorms while on the mountain.
I take the scenic route to Kitt Peak from west Tucson. Over the Tucson Mountains and through Saquaro West Monument - mainly because of the incessant highway construction going on in town. The drive is slower and probably longer - but I despise city traffic. If I had to live in Phoenix or LA/NY I'd have to be taken away in a straight-jacket! Anyway, as I crest over the Tucson hills, (about 35 miles from Kitt Peak as the crow flies) I notice a great deal of smoke billowing from what looks like the south end of the Mountain range upon which the telescopes are perched. As I continue the drive toward the telescope ranch, the obvious "forest" (if you can call mesquite and sagebrush a forest) fire becomes more ominous looking. Black and grey smoke peek over the tops of the domes. No flames are visible from the north side of the mountain, but surely the fire is not far from the south base of the Peak. I turn onto the road that ascends the mountain - I see the observatory gate, which normally blocks the 12 mile-long access road to visitors, is closed - but not locked (although I have a key). There are no emergency vehicles or police around. Except for the closed gate - all appears normal. I proceed up the mountain unchallenged.
It is approaching 5:00 pm as I round the corner of a curve about 1 mile from the summit which affords the first unobstructed view of the south valley below Kitt Peak and the Baboquivari range further to the south.
The scene is hostile - like a view of a battle ground. Aircraft buzz about the distant smoking desert like buzzards circling a potential meal. I pull off the road into a tourist overlook and watch through the windshield in complete awe for a time before regaining my composure and begin unloading my cameras.
I am strangely alone. No cars pass by and the only sound I hear are the distant drones of circling aircraft. I setup two tripods, one with a Canon EOS 1D MKII with a 70-200mm F/2.8L IS lens and the other with a Canon 5D and 400mm F/2.8L IS on a Wimberly head mount. I watch and click away for nearly an hour before I realize it will be getting dark soon and I'm suppose to be babysitting a couple of Astronomers in a short while. I pack up quickly and drive up the remainder of the hill.
I arrive at the 2.3 meter dorm and unpack my overnight bag. I see no other personnel or scientists - somewhat unusual but as yet I am not concerned. Now 6:30pm, I make my way over to the 2.3 meter telescope dome. I'll need to prepare the telescope and instruments for the "possible" observing session tonight. (I say "possible" only because - the sky is mostly clear now - but there is a thunderstorm to the distant southeast and the outflow will most likely overtake the area in an hour or so.)
I just finish filling the liquid nitrogen dewar of the science camera attached to the telescope when the phone rings. It is my boss. A nice enough guy, he is surprised and relieved to find I am on site and informs me of the obvious - there is a fire south of the mountain, and furthermore, the mountain has been evacuated and that the forest service isn't letting anybody up to the telescopes!
Oh Wow! - hearing this development I suddenly become Henry Bemis in the "Twilight Zone" . You know - the guy who loves to read and finds himself the only survivor after the world is destroyed. Anyway, in the story, Henry makes his way to the remains of the local library and revels in the bliss he believes will be the remainder of his life - doing what he loves best - reading books, or in MY case - taking pictures. I begin to fantasize about the coming hours on the mountain. I have the entire site to myself! There is not a soul for miles. I have my beloved cameras and all the time in the world to document this rare event at my leisure! YES!!!!!!
Just then - my boss - stomps on my reading glasses.
"Your job" - he tells me - is to "prep the observatory and the dorms for possible smoke and fire damage." He will do his best to get the authorities to allow at least one other engineer up to help me but this may take a while to negotiate. He wants me to collect all flammable liquids external to the buildings and store them in the flammables closet in the dome. Prep and seal all windows and exhaust ports on all buildings (remove curtains and other flammables, tape instrument room doors so smoke can't seep in, cover and seal all optical surfaces and instruments on the telescope, etc., etc.) Sigh. So much for photojournalism.
Darkness comes at about 8:45 pm. The thunderstorm south of the mountain is putting on quite a show now - pillars of lightning blasting behind curtains of smoke from the fire which is not directly visible from the 2.3 meter site. With each flash I can see (or hear)- I curse. Another opportunity to photographically capture the fire and its progenitor - lost. A couple of my colleagues from downtown finally arrive and help with the task at hand. We work for the next 3 hours putting the buildings into fire shutdown mode. Near midnight we prepare to leave the mountain - for what may be a long while.
As I start the van, I am bummed at the missed photo-ops earlier in the evening. I tell the guys that I'm going to stop at the overlook to take a few parting shots before leaving the mountain. They wish me luck and tell me they'll see me in town.
As I drive the short distance down the mountain to the overlook the smell of smoke becomes suddenly obvious. The headlights of the van illuminate what looks like very light snow falling in brief spurts at times. Ash from the fire is finally invading the environs of the "Home of the Long Eyes" as the locals call this place. I pull off the road into the overlook and turn off the van's engine and extinquish the headlights. For the first time, I see the raw beauty of the inferno below.
Lines and dots of brilliant deep red fire imbedded in filmy smoke against an impossibly black background. The scene immediately reminds me of one of those countless images I've seen of some distant cosmic nebula, sprinkled with stars. Photographs taken through the very same telescope I was, just minutes before, preparing for the worst. Indeed, the resemblance is eerily poetic somehow. The fire below me threatening the distant fire of the stars above me. Its times like this that makes me wish I were a writer.
Trying not to be completely mesmerized by the light show below, I unpack and set up the cameras. I take exposures ranging from 10 to 30 seconds at ISO 400 and at F/3.5 using various focal length lenses from 12mm to 400mm. Occasionally a bolt of lightning from the retreating storm to the south blazes forth.
I try valiantly to capture a portrait of the fire and its parent. Unlike most of my studio sessions with humans - its the parent here that refuses to cooperate. I have limited success. The flashes are just too infrequent and are typically outside the frame of composition I setup to best capture the fire. My colleagues headlights appear around the corner from the road passing the overlook. I get a blast of a car horn and a friendly wave as they pass on their way down the mountain. I am alone once again with the mountain, my cameras and my subject. I continue to take image after image - hoping to capture that one frame of well timed and composed lightning and fire.
The smoke is getting thicker; the lightning receding into the night. The mountain is quiet. Tired, I pack up the cameras and retreat to the safety of home.