Australian observatory survives wildfire

SYDNEY (AFP) - Telescopes at a global space research facility appear to have survived a devastating Australian inferno that destroyed 12 nearby homes and damaged several buildings on the site, officials said on Monday.

The fire, which raged through the night fuelled by hot, strong winds, damaged parts of the Siding Spring Observatory, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service said.

But it said aerial surveillance had established that the main Anglo-Australian Telescope "has survived, although it is not known if it has been damaged".

Eighteen staff working at the facility, which houses 10 operating telescopes run by Australian, Polish, British, South Korean and American researchers, were safely evacuated before the fire struck.

The Australian National University (ANU), which administers the site, said five buildings at the observatory site had been "severely affected or damaged", including lodgings for visiting researchers and the visitors' centre.

"An initial visual assessment indicated that no telescopes appear to have received major damage, but the impact of the fire on the instruments will not be known until later today," the university said in a statement.

"Additional ANU staff are travelling to Siding Springs from Canberra today to assist with damage assessment, clean-up, restoration of services and administration."

Acting director of the Australian Astronomical Observatory, Mr Andrew Hopkins, said it was a great relief for researchers to see that the telescopes appeared intact after fires destroyed a partner observatory in Canberra in 2003.

"The significance of the site is absolutely huge," he said. "The Siding Spring Observatory site is the premier astronomical observatory facility in Australia for optical and infrared observing."

Residents in the remote area in the Warrumbungle Ranges, about 500 kilometres north-west of Sydney, said the speed and force of the blaze had been terrifying.

"It looked like an atom bomb the way it went up," local resident Susan Armstrong told Fairfax newspapers. "The spot fires and how quickly it all moved was quite scary."

The fire near the observatory was one of 170 blazes raging on Monday across New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, where heatwave conditions have seen 500,000 hectares scorched.

A firefighter was killed in southern Tasmania state on Sunday while back-burning. He was found dead about three kilometres from the main fire front. His cause of death was unknown.

More than 100 homes were razed in fires in Tasmania earlier this month.

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