THE telescopes of the internationally important Siding Spring
Observatory near Coonabarabran appear to have survived a devastating bushfire, but the full extent of any possible damage remains unclear.
The fire that tore through the Warrumbungle National Park destroyed or severely damaged at least five outlying buildings at the Australian National University-owned observatory, including an accommodation lodge and residential cottages that housed staff and researchers.
ANU Acting vice-chancellor Erik Lithander said a couple of staff members were allowed back on to the mountain late yesterday morning to inspect the site and it appeared as though the buildings that housed the telescopes had escaped significant damage.
Readings from remote monitoring equipment indicated the heat on the outside of the building during the fire reached 120 degrees, but inside it remained at 20 degrees.
“That’s why we’re hopeful the inside of the buildings were spared significant damage,” Dr Lithander said.
But he said until staff were given the all-clear by the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) and structural engineers to enter the buildings, it could not be confirmed.
The observatory will be closed for at least the next two weeks for assessment.
Siding Spring is home to the Anglo-Australian telescope, which is the largest optical telescope in Australia, and houses telescopes belonging to ANU and the Australian Astronomical Observatory, as well as those of international organisations.
The university has about $80 million of assets at the observatory.
Dr Lithander said the main priority at this stage was the safety and wellbeing of the 18 staff and family members who had to be evacuated to Coonabarabran on Sunday.
He said some of these employees might have lost their homes or possessions, and the impact of the blaze was being taken “extremely seriously”.
Tomorrow the university counsellor, vice chancellor, and director of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics will travel to Coonabarabran.
Other staff were already on their way yesterday to support the observatory’s employees.
Dr Lithander said it was not known when the observatory would be operational again.
Even if the telescopes were undamaged, he said, the loss of the on-site accommodation would make it logistically more difficult to run the site.
The observatory was last affected by a fire about 15 years ago, although it does not appear to have caused substantial damage.
Following the Canberra fires of 2003, which significantly damaged ANU’s Mount Stromlo Observatory, a number of measures were put in place at Siding Spring to minimise the potential impacts of any fire.
These included clearing trees and other flammable material from around the telescope buildings, better fire trials and using Crimsafe security screens to protect the telescope buildings from embers.
Staff were also notified last week to prepare for potential fires.
The same fire has destroyed at least 33 homes in the area.