Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Battle for Mt. Wilson

Today the Station Fire made it to the summit of Mt. Wilson. While it lasted, the view from the tower cam on the 150-foot solar telescope looked pretty scary at times:

The view from the air didn't look much better though:

After a while we learned that these were backfires lit by the fire fighters to prevent the main blaze from reaching the observatory.

Power seems to be off on the mountain and official updates are now coming from a site not hosted there.

This afternoon the LA Times reports:

"But firefighters were frantically trying to save the historic astronomical observatory and dozens of critical TV and radio antennas from destruction. By 3 p.m., the fire was approaching closer than ever from two directions: one-half mile to the north and three-quarters of a mile to the west.

“We expect the fire to hit the Mt. Wilson facilities between 5 p.m. today and 2 a.m. Wednesday morning,” said Los Angeles County Fire Department Deputy Chief James Powers. “Right now, we’re conducting controlled burns around the perimeter in preparation for the impending fire's arrival. We’re also bringing in trucks and special equipment to coat all of the structures with protective gel and foam if necessary. We do not plan to cover everything with a gooey mess.”

The equipment was driven in on the two-lane, five-mile long Mt. Wilson Road, which intersects Angeles Crest Highway. Access to the road was restricted to firefighters and law enforcement. Fire lined several sections of the road on both sides, and rocks were falling from denuded hillsides.

As he spoke from his ersatz headquarters in the observatory’s main office, myriad controlled burns set beneath canyon oaks and old incensed cedars cloaked the mountaintop with dense acrid smoke.

The air was also filled with the ear-splitting, blaring sounds of an observatory fire alarm system.

Chainsaws could be heard in every direction in the surrounding forest. Massive earth movers were being unloaded off flatbed trucks nearby. Powers said authorities had deliberately delayed diverting firefighters and equipment to the scene until the complex was in imminent danger.

“That time is now,” Powers said. Los Angeles County Fire Department Battalion Chief Steve Martin said, “We are going to burn, cut, foam and gel. And if that doesn’t work, we’re going to pray. This place is worth a lot, but it’s not worth dying for. ”

In a worst-case scenario, firefighters were expected to retreat to the safety of the observatory parking lot or seek refuge in the concrete and steel basement of the 105-year-old, 100-inch telescope observatory."

It is currently raining on Palomar Mountain right now. I don't see any rain on the way for the Mt. Wilson area, but hopefully they at least have some higher humidity to ease things a bit. The battle certainly isn't over.


Ibrahim said...

Scott, thank you for the fascinating reporting of the fire near Mt. Wilson. I know that now the observatory is safe, but it sure got hairy a couple of days ago. I envy you for your job. I have dreamed of visiting Mt. Palomar since I was a teenager (I'm 59 now). Guess I'll never make it, but I get a kick out of visiting websites about it. I actually made a model of the 200 inch for Science Fair in 1964!

Scott Kardel said...

Hi Ibrahim,

Thanks for the comments.

I hope you get to visit us someday.

Any chance you have a photo of the model of the 200" you made in '64? If so, I would love to see it!