JPL threatened by fires

By Phil Plait | August 30, 2009 7:33 pm

[Update (19:40 MT): On Twitter right now, several friends are saying Mt. Wilson — a very famous and historic observatory — may get hit by these fires. As of this moment, news is unclear. Yikes.]

[Update II (20:40 MT): Clifford Johnson has heard that the authorities may have to let the fires take Mt. Wilson. I have not confirmed this yet. If it’s true, well, we’ll see.]

[Update III (23:00 p.m. MT) Firefighters will stay at Mt. Wilson to fight back the flames. Oh my. Such heroism is incredible. But… the Hooker 100 inch telescope at Mt. Wilson is what was use to discover the Universe is expanding. We filmed part of "The Skeptologists" there, and I touched the mirror of that telescope. I hope it can be saved, but not at the cost of human life. I hope they take care there.]

There are wildfires burning in southern California right now, and I hope all the BABloggees — everyone — out there are safe. I’ve been following several friends on Twitter and I’m relieved to hear they’re OK.

However, the fires are right on top of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, and I just got a news alert that said that only essential personnel are to report to JPL tomorrow (Monday):

Mission-critical personnel who should report for work on Aug. 31 will be determined by JPL’s deputy director and will be contacted by their supervisors. JPL and the Woodbury complex will be closed on Monday to all other personnel. Public tours originally scheduled for Monday are cancelled.

I never appreciated just how bad these could be until I lived in northern California, and fires were burning 20 miles away, but the smoke where we were was bad enough we had to stay home. It’s scary, for real scary, and I most whole-heartedly hope everyone is safe at home right now.


Comments (53)

  1. David V

    The LATimes website has recent updates.

    Also check out the solar webcam from Mt. Wilson:
    Note: apparently, the camera refreshes every 2 minutes although now it’s less frequent.

    Mt. Wilson is very much in danger. The fire is apparently 2 miles away. Here’s a quote, “We expect it to get there [Mt. Wilson] in the next two to four hours,” said county fire Capt. Mark Savage. That comment was posted 1.3 hours ago.

    JPL appears to be safer than Mt. Wilson, from what I can tell. If you look at a map, such as the interactive map on the LATimes website, keep in mind that JPL is next door to to La Canada High School, which is currently an evacuation center for the nearby area.

  2. Chris

    Links to latest news on the fire:


    Los Angeles Times coverage:

    I live in a canyon in Sierra Madre; we’ve been lucky so far with just some bad air quality. But folks closer to the JPL region, and those backing onto forested areas have really been getting it. Let’s hope it starts to burn out and conditions make it easier on the fire-fighting teams.

  3. kingnor

    Everyone associates earthquakes with California, but the huge end-of-summer fires are the recurring ‘disaster’. My mom lives out in Temecula CA and all the fields out there burn down spectacularly every 5 or so years. Hopefully everyone can get out of the way this time around.

    It doesn’t take much to set off these huge fires. Please be safe.

  4. T.E.L.

    I haven’t seen a California-class wildfire; but I did get to see a decent one near Las Vegas five years ago. There was an accident to the northwest of town on Robbers Roost hill, which my wife & I watched from a distance of about 1/2 mile. Even that far away the heat was lapping away at my face and the sound of the roiling blaze was as lucid as a campfire. The smoke plume rose until it hit a new layer of air and then wandered over and covered the whole sky over Vegas, something like 20 miles away. It took fire depts from far & wide to monitor the blaze and keep it from getting bigger than it did over the course of a couple of days.

    If something that comparatively small made such a massive ruckuss, I see how the California fires can be disasters of mythic proportions.

  5. I'd rather be fishin'

    I feel orf those people. I used to live in northern Alberta. Forest fires were a constant hazard to the town. One summer, the school was let out early, the town was on a 3-hour evac notice, but what sticks with me to this day is that the street lights were on at noon because of the dark smoke.

    I hope everyone remains safe.

  6. Jim Atkins

    I’m in Twentynine Palms, about 120 miles due east of LA and we can smell the smoke and at sunset, we could see the smoke plumes in front of the setting sun. I remember as a kid (grew up in Rowland Heights, 20 mi east of downtown) in the early seventies, fires were burning basically everywhere around us and two fires merged, making a burn from Castaic to the sea at Malibu, 35 miles long. This is just the start of fire season, too.

  7. Davros

    i Hope That you manage to avoid what happened in the 2003 Canberra Bushfires (4 dead )
    the Mount Stromlo Observatory was mostly destroyed

    or this years Black Saturday bushfire (173 dead around 500 injured.)
    The fires destroyed over 2,200 houses, 3,500 structures

  8. Olive

    Keep an eye on Mt. Wilson’s own fire news site. They are going to be allowed (at least for now) to keep the firefighters overnight. My (uneducated) guess is that the fire will go over the observatory, but a lot of stuff may be saved by their extensive efforts at fireproofing and firefighting.

    I’m personally watching from the Caltech library in Pasadena. I can only see an occasional flame near Mt. Wilson through all the smoke on the mountains (Pasadena and Caltech have clear air now and I imagine we’re not at risk of anything worse than a few asthma attacks).

  9. MJKelleher

    Mt Wilson Observatory is posting updates on their website

    Sunday, 30 Aug 09, 8:07 pm PDT – A critical aspect to the survivability of the Observatory should the fire sweep across it is whether or not fire fighters will be on site during such an event. The U.S. Forest Service continually assesses the danger to fire fighters in any scenario and will withdraw fire crews in situations that are particularly precarious. Such an evaluation took place on Mount Wilson in the last half hour with the decision for the fire crews to remain in place tonight. That’s very good news.

    Hoping from upstate NY that firefighters and residents remain safe.

  10. Roen

    I wish the best for every one there. Please don’t be overly brave and get out if you feel it necessary. Keep safe, all.

  11. Davros, I was at Stromlo after the fire. It was horrible, with the telescopes ruined, many of the steel girders sagged from heat, the hundreds of square km of burned trees, and the flies due to the ecosystem being upset… I hope Mt. Wilson can avoid that fate.

  12. Darrel

    I live in Vegas, and we knew about the wildfires long before any news reports could tell us about them. As soon as fires start in California the smoke is blown over to the Vegas Valley and everyone knows. Imagine how bad things have to be to darken the skies in another state so rapidly.

    This is reason #267 why I don’t want to live here anymore.

  13. Gavin Mendeck

    Since they decided to leave the firefighters there, sounds like Mt. Wilson has a good chance to make it through the night. Hope they make it through okay. Webcam at

    The fires are horrible right now.

    The spring rains may be worse with mudslides. I’m not sure if JPL is at risk from that, but I’m sure some of the surrounding communities are.

  14. We’re hunkered down at home and safe, but fearing for Mt Wilson and JPL…

  15. AliCali

    I’ve been in Southern California my whole life and am used to the fires. What’s interesting about this one is that, while it’s been very hot (over 100F), the Santa Ana winds are not blowing. Those winds are what usually make the fires so bad. Then I heard that because the winds are not blowing, the smoke goes straight up, which makes air drops impossible due to no visibility. Can’t get a break.

    Not only is the Observatory up on Mt. Wilson, but so are many television and radio antennae. That also has many people’s attention.

    On a related note, the one time I want to ram someone with my car is when I see them flicking a lit cigarette out the window. (They don’t want to put the ash and butt in their ashtray, but they’ll put that crap in their lungs?!) I want to ask them, with a piece of industrial pipe inserted into their ear, if they’re really that stupid.

  16. Just got news that the LAFD will be fighting the Mt. Wilson fire overnight:

    Jeez, “brave” doesn’t cut it. Those fire fighters really are heroes, looking at those images.

    Saw the plume of smoke from 30 miles away today… and it’s huge. Reminiscent of a volcano plume.

  17. John Baxter

    Mother worked at JPL, starting several years before it transitioned from Army Ordnance Corps to the new NASA thing. For several years, we got there to deliver her and pick her up via the road over the dam. The bridge came later.

    Hope all is well, there and at Mt Wilson.

    As said on Twitter, I hiked to Mt Wilson a few times (and drove more often). The hike was pretty easy, thanks to the right of way of the Mount Lowe Pacific Electric line. (The climb up the route of the cable railway connection was hard–down that part was worse.) I’m not quite so old as to have ridden the trains.

  18. Living as we do in a high fire danger area here in Colorado (although it’s cool and wet right now), we are keeping avid watch on this fire.

  19. JayceM

    A pretty but ominous picture of the JPL with fires over the horizon at:

  20. Jon B

    I was just in Pasadena last night. At six o’clock, nothing on the mountains above the city. At eleven, flames were visible on the ridge and coming down toward the city. Mount Wilson is, unfortunately, very likely in harm’s way. (Besides the observatory, and I don’t know whether it’s changed with HDTV, but Mount Wilson is also the location of the TV transmitter that covers the entire San Fernando Valley.) However, I think that JPL may be just far enough below the foothills to be protected by a bit of an urban buffer. The more likely reason they’re limiting personnel tomorrow is that the smoke out that way is just hellacious.

    And from where I live, about twenty miles west of Pasadena, the smoke and clouds have been nothing less then apocalyptic in appearance. For the last two days, the combination of smoke and convection induced upper-atmosphere clouds have looked like nothing less than a volcanic eruption.

    This is life in California, though. Perfectly normal, business as usual whenever the temperature goes above a hundred and the humidity goes below fifty.

  21. Naomi

    Ohh, hell no. No no no. Not after already losing Stromlo.

    Fires suck.

  22. We live right below Mt. Wilson in Pasadena. I’ve been watching the advance all day.

    It’s catch 22. No Santa Ana winds, the fire funnels right up the canyons to Mt. Wilson. Santa Ana Winds blow, the fire moves southwest…right into the city, with JPl, et al in its path.

    A no win situation, unfortunately.

    And I second the notion of teaching cigarette smokers a lesson. Swallowing their burning leftovers might be a start.

  23. Madame Rogue

    UCLA has a webcam trained on Mt. Wilson. At the moment you can see flames near the dome.

  24. Cory

    Seriously, attacking a group of millions because a few of them have accidently caused fires in the past? You might as well move in on campers and hunters next, as well as housewives with their death machine ovens.

    Haven’t we learned our lesson about judging groups by single individuals within them, after genocides and civil rights boondoggles galore? How idiotic is humanity?

  25. I made a 3 hour timelapse from the observatory webcam images. It’s at, HD vimeo link here – – helpful for distinguishing lights from flames.

    You can see left and right fires creep forward, but that center fire brightens considerably as it rounds that peak, to the point of causing lens flare. Brighter still now unfortunately.

  26. @ Cory:

    How idiotic is humanity?

    Idiotic enough to throw scraps of burning leaves on the ground when it’s 100° out and the earth is covered with tinder dry brush?

    Come round my house sometime and clean all the ovens off the sidewalk. Oh, wait, those aren’t ovens, they’re cigarette butts.

    In any case, it’s rhetoric. Lighten up while you’re lighting up.

  27. Cory

    People do stupid things with every conceivable item every moment of every day. Sure, there aren’t ovens on your sidewalk, but I’m sure there are far more cars speeding at unsafe speeds down your street than still-smoldering cigarette butts deposited on any given day. I’m also quite sure that cars are far more dangerous per capita. Maybe we should force drivers to inhale the fumes from their tailpipes? Let’s all bike or ride mass transit from now on because of the idiots who don’t drive correctly or legally, imo.

    “Rhetoric” has a nasty habit of informing reality. It just takes even the slightest understanding of history to grasp that.. Far too little vitriol remains as such for long when people are looking for venge– I mean justice, sorry.

    For the record, I said “them” when referring to smokers because I don’t smoke.

  28. MadScientist

    I hope they can get earth movers in and knock down trees – but more importantly keep some experienced firefighters and adequate equipment (and food etc) up there. The Mt. Stromlo Observatory in Australia was decimated by a fire only weeks after I had a long argument with someone about killing off trees (I was all for killing off trees but people seem too attached to them – end result is trees gone and observatory gone with ’em). Once gone it’s incredibly difficult to get funds to restore things and historical artifacts are lost forever. The Mt. Wilson observatory was built up over many decades.

    @Davros: The Stromlo Observatory was near totally destroyed; only the relatively new office buildings from the mid 1990s and later survived; all others were destroyed beyond repair or severely damaged. All instruments on site were destroyed (including that gorgeous piece of astronomical clockwork, the “Oddie Telescope”). The old Commonwealth Solar Observatory building was redesigned and the outer walls of the original compound were kept – but everything else is new. Unfortunately the site has not been terribly good for observations for a few decades now, so I do not believe any instruments will be located there in the future. Such a pity; I enjoyed watching telescopes morph as they were adapted to new projects.

  29. A friend of mine was working at Mt. Stromlo at the time of the 2003 fire. He also lost his home to it; he and his housemate were lucky to escape with their lives and a few possessions.

  30. Torbjörn Larsson, OM


    When I’m posting this, the webcam shows the electricity still on but fires peeking up behind the top, and the google map of the fire perimeter and it’s advance hints that it may spread there.

    L.A. Now
    Southern California — this just in

    Firefighters bedding down near Mt. Wilson
    August 31, 2009 | 12:51 am

    At the bottom of Mt. Wilson Road, firefighters bedded down in the ash-flecked open air, the forest pitch black except for the flames lighting ridgelines in the near distance.

    […] the observatory, where five engine crews were posted overnight.

    The blaze had already raced up to the winding stretch of Angeles Crest Highway that leads to the Wilson road, and the lanes remained barely passable in sections.

  31. captain swoop

    Is it just my browser or has the webcam gone down? I was watching it earlier and now nothing?

  32. Dan I.

    I remember living up on Long Island back in 1994 when there were these two really bad fires. The Westhampton fire turned into a bona fide firestorm. We all knew it was really bad when they flew in some firefighters from California.

    Everyone expected them to show up and go “You call this a fire?” Instead they showed and went “Hmm, yeah, this is actually a pretty bad fire.” That’s when you KNEW it was a bad fire.

  33. Peter B

    Ian O’Neill said: “Saw the plume of smoke from 30 miles away today… and it’s huge. Reminiscent of a volcano plume.”

    That brought back some memories, so please forgive my reminiscing…

    I live in Canberra, and was here on the day the bushfires struck back on Saturday 18 January 2003.

    I finished work on the Friday afternoon, about to start two weeks of leave. As I walked to the car, I was surprised by the sight of a number of charred leaves from gum trees lying on the ground. I’d never seen anything quite like it before. I assumed they were something to do with the fire I knew was burning somewhere out to the west of Canberra, but thought nothing more of it.

    The following morning, I walked down to the nearby shopping mall to buy a newspaper, and as I walked back home I could see a massive column of smoke in the distance. It made me think of the story of the column of smoke which guided the Israelites during the Exodus.

    I was concerned enough that I decided to check on my brother’s house – he was out of town and his house backed onto bushland. I phoned my sister for advice, as her husband is in the local volunteer bushfire brigade, and she was able to give me a few good tips. I did some general cleaning up, then went back home to phone my brother. He was a bit puzzled, as he’d been interstate and hadn’t heard anything about the fires.

    Then, after lunch, the news on the radio got serious, and I decided to go back to my brother’s place. At the time I lived in a unit in the middle of an urban area (Belconnen), so I wasn’t worried about fires affecting my place. But by now the fires were well into Canberra, and several major roads were cut, meaning I had to take a very round-about route to my brother’s house. On top of that, the power failures had caused traffic lights to fail, and near my brother’s place I had to pass through one of Canberra’s busiest intersections, on a road being used by people I now know were fleeing burning suburbs.

    Anyway, I got to my brother’s house safely and tried to hose things down, but the water pressure was almost non-existent. Then a fire swept steadily through the bushland behind my brother’s place. Fortunately, it was a fairly small fire and kept moving quickly enough that only the grass burned – the many gum trees in the area didn’t catch fire. And then it was past. A couple of strangers ran through the yard from the street to the bushland to fight the fire, and I remember seeing some people in shorts and T-shirts or singlets trying to fight the flames, but my efforts were at an end.

    Almost as bad were the next few days. It remained hot, but the wind had died, meaning the pall of smoke just sat over the city; every breath smelled of smoke. And the whole time, we were wondering whether the winds would pick up and restart the fires.

    My wife had an even scarier experience. She tells me (we weren’t an item at the time) she and some of her friends decided to evacuate because reports suggested they might nearly be surrounded by flames. As it was, quite a few houses less than a kilometre away were burned down.

    In late 2004, I was with the Bad Astronomer when he visited what remained of Mount Stromlo. It was a sobering experience. But what really angers me about the destruction of the observatory was the claims by conspiracy theorists (including someone claiming to be a fire fighter) that the bushfire was deliberately lit to destroy the observatory because it was capable of observing the approach of Planet X. Remember that version of Planet X?

    Anyway, a few weeks ago I took my son (21 months old, and cute as a button – everyone says so) to Questacon, the National Science and Technology Centre here in Canberra. Outside one of the entrances is a sculpture called “The Astronomer”, made from scrap metal salvaged from the ruins of the Mount Stromlo observatory, a poignant reminder of what science we lost that day.

  34. Monsignor Henry Clay

    Flipping channels this morning, flipped through TBN (christian network). Had a crawler at the bottom asking people to “pray, pray, pray” for the salvation of their transmitter on Mt. Wilson. So there you have it. If Mt. Wilson is spared it won’t be because of the tireless efforts of the firefighters. It’s all ‘cuz god needed that transmitter.

  35. marianna

    Oh dear! Two firefighters have died. From msn news.

    The fire has also claimed the lives of two California firefighters, who died near the city of Acton, Calif., more than 80 kilometres north of Los Angeles, when their truck was overrun by flames and rolled down the side of Mount Wilson on Sunday.

    Authorities have identified the dead as 47-year-old Fire Capt. Tedmund Hall and firefighter Specialist Arnaldo “Arnie” Quinones, 35.

    Mount Wilson is the site of a century-old observatory and important communications centre. U.S. Forest Service Capt. Mike Dietrich said firefighters were working to protect the transmitters of more than 20 TV stations, as well as many radio stations and cellphone providers.

  36. AliCali

    @ Cory: I wasn’t blasting all smokers. I was blasting smokers who flick their lit cigarettes out the window. There is a lot of dead brush by the freeways in Sourthern California, and those cigarettes can ignite a serious fire. Just because only a few start fires doesn’t mean it’s okay for everyone to flick their lit cigarettes out the window.

    Of course there are a lot of other dangerous things out there, such as speeding and bad driving, but that doesn’t mean flicking lit cigarettes can be excused since it’s not #1 on the danger list. Also, the act of putting out one’s cigarette in one’s own ashtray rather than out the window can’t be that hard, so it’s not like there’s a huge sacrifice in lifestyle.

  37. firemancarl

    Didn’t see my previous post so i’ll post again

    you can watch! I know ) the have live coverage right now!

    The firefighters will do everything they can to protect Mt Wilson.

    Irony alert. These fires came just weeks after LAFD announced fire station ‘brownouts’ and daily staffing reductions of 87 firefighters per shift.

  38. Quiet Desperation

    Solution: genetically engineer fireproof plants

    There. I haz genius. I leave the details to the readers.

    The Mt. Wilson webcam is one of my daily “things I check after I log in at work” sites. I can’t get through now. Don’t know if it’s gone or if it’s overloaded because KFI and other stations linked it on their sites.

  39. bigjohn756

    No wildfires here thank goodness, but, I do have to put up with this stuff:

    I guess fires are a lot worse, but, they don’t last as long.

  40. Cory

    @38, I wasn’t referring to you so much as the other guy. I agree that people flicking lit cigarettes out a window should be punished rather severely under the law — but I don’t really like how the other guy wanted to punish “the smokers” as an entire group.

    More on-topic.. I’ve lived in San Diego my whole life. Wildfires are a terrible business; I personally know far too many people or people who know people who have lost their homes. When you add that to the actual human life, it’s almost staggering how little control we have over what seems such a simple phenomenon.

  41. @ Cory:

    As “the other guy” you’re referencing, I’ll reiterate my position: people (smokers or non-smokers) who throw burning litter on the ground in tinder-dry southern California should be heavily fined, if not jailed.

    It’s bad enough they get away with breaking the litter laws that apply to everyone else, dropping flaming trash on the ground is borderline sociopathic. Why should they get off scott free when anyone else lighting up a piece of paper and dropping it in a public setting would be arrested for attempted arson?

    As for ovens and cars, when was the last time you saw someone deliberately toss a flaming oven out of a window? Or back their vehicle deliberately into a pile of dry brush and rev the engine? Apples and oranges on a slippery slope. Bad logic.

    I don’t yet know the cause of the fire up above my town, but if it’s found that careless smoking was to blame, I would gladly volunteer to _______ (deleted to avoid moderation troubles.)

  42. Heath from Table Mountain

    Lets hope that the fire stops marching east from Acton. It seems to be about 15 miles west of us and moving towards JPL’s Table Mountain Observatory. Keep you fingers crossed.

  43. 16. AliCali Says:
    On a related note, the one time I want to ram someone with my car is when I see them flicking a lit cigarette out the window. (They don’t want to put the ash and butt in their ashtray, but they’ll put that crap in their lungs?!)

    As a (still, unfortunately) smoker, I’d like to note that most modern cars don’t HAVE an ashtray, but plenty of cupholders. I took a metal ‘coffee cup’ and half filled it with sand (I drive an ’02 Saturn – so there IS an Astronomy relationship 😉 ).

    This tends to show the ‘laziness’ of people (intellectually we have anti-vax, IDiots, etc. but there’s still just plain physical laziness), such as a particular pet peeve of mine.. shoppers who won’t walk five (5) feet to take a shopping cart to a ‘return bay’. Or, people who park illegally in a handicap spot to ‘mall walk’ or go to their ‘gym’ as another example.


  44. Damon

    Essential personnel only? How will JPL keep up with it’s airbrush quota? Those anomalous photos aren’t going to alter themselves.

  45. $5000 fine for flicking a lit smoke from a car in South Australia. In New South Wales a ciggie that causes a fire incurs a $100k fine and/or 2 years in jail.

    Does California have Total Fire Bans where it is illegal to have an open flame out doors?

  46. Grendels Dad

    I’ll add my best wishes to the observatory and those fighting to preserve it.

    But I thought that touching the mirror in one of those telescopes was the kind of thing that got your hand slapped (or worse). Maybe Phil touched the back of it…

  47. I was browsing the net looking at some stuff and stummbled accross your site. I wanted to tell you that I think your site has some good content and that I have already saved this site so I don’t lose it Thanks!


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar