SYDNEY // Australia's leading research observatory, which houses telescopes used by scientists around the world, was damaged by a large wildfire yesterday as hot weather and storms stoked dozens of new blazes.
The Rural Fire Service (RFS) of New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, issued an emergency warning for an out-of-control fire that had scorched the Siding Spring Observatory, a remote global research facility.
"This is a large and dangerous bush fire," the RFS said.
"It is burning in the area around Timor Road near Siding Spring Observatory."
It said two properties in Timor Road were destroyed and part of the observatory had been damaged by fire. The extent of the damage was unclear.
A university spokeswoman said that all of the observatory personnel had been confirmed as "safely evacuated and accounted for" before the fire arrived.
Siding Spring, a mountain-top site in the Warrumbungle Ranges about 500 kilometres north-west of Sydney, contains 10 telescopes run by Australian, Polish, British, Korean and American researchers.
Administered by the Australian National University's research school of astronomy and astrophysics, it is the nation's major optical and infrared observatory and one of the leading facilities of its kind in the world.
Firefighters were battling difficult conditions, with temperatures in the area above 40 degrees Celsius and hot, north-westerly gusts of about 60 kph.
The fire was burning across a four-kilometre front, with a strong southerly wind pushing the flames to the north and northeast as night fell.
A partner observatory at Canberra's Mount Stromlo was destroyed in January 2003 by wildfires that also killed four people and razed more than 500 homes.
Five telescopes, residences and more than a dozen buildings were ruined in the Mount Stromlo inferno, forcing the cancellation of a number of major projects, including a digital survey of the Southern Hemisphere's skies.
* Agence France-Presse