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California wildfires temporarily suspend search for aliens

By Melodi Smith and Kate Grise, CNN
updated 8:13 AM EDT, Wed August 6, 2014
Smoke and fire close in on SETI's telescope array.
Smoke and fire close in on SETI's telescope array.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Scientists at SETI Institute's telescope array had to flee as wildfires closed in
  • Blazes approached facility from both the east and west
  • Scientists were later given the OK to return

(CNN) -- Wildfires raging in Northern California briefly halted the search for extraterrestrial life on Tuesday.

The Eiler Fire, burning some 200 miles north of Sacramento, forced employees at the SETI Institute's Allen Telescope Array to evacuate and temporarily shut down all of their computers, Internet and power.

"We can't listen when all that is down," said Seth Shostak, senior astronomer and director of SETI Research.

At SETI -- which stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence -- scientists search the heavens for signs of extraterrestrial life by "listening" with an array of small satellite dishes.

The blaze came within a mile of the facility, located near Hat Creek, California, on both the east and west, according to Shostak.

"The fire on the west had jumped the road, burnt down our favorite lunch place, got within a mile of the telescopes," he said. As the flames got closer, the staff fled to safer ground and shut down the satellites.

"We just lost some search hours," he said. "To expect that E.T. will somehow reach out at this moment, that would be very bizarre."

The Eiler Fire may not have cost the researchers their chance to find aliens, but it's already burned more than 31,000 acres and threatened over 700 homes. However, fire offficials say the fire is 35% contained and is expected to be fully contained by August 20th.

The search for life can continue at SETI's telescope array. The scientists were eventually given the all clear to return to the facility.

Pacific Northwest wildfires char a million acres, spur warnings of bad air

Citizen scientists shape 'destiny of humanity' with SETI

Dave Alsup contributed to this report.

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