Update on the fire around Mt. Wilson observatory

By Phil Plait | August 31, 2009 4:04 pm

News is coming out of the Mt. Wilson area in spurts, and it’s hard to know what’s going on at any given moment. The latest news (from 14:46 PDT) is that firefighters have been pulled from the mountain itself, the staging area near the base of the mountain is being evacuated, and the fire on the mountain will be fought from the air (presumably by water dumps).

That’s not good. Many of the observatory buildings were designed to be fire-resistant, but that doesn’t mean there will be no damage, or no severe damage. It’s just too early to tell. But it looks like the fire will sweep past the observatory sometime later tonight. I just hope it goes through quickly enough that it does minimal damage. I don’t want to see Mt. Wilson go through what Mt. Stromlo did in Australia in 2003.

Astronomer Mike Brown is on Twitter with frequent updates, so he’s a good source of up-to-the-minute news.

[Update: JPL resumes normal operations tomorrow, so that’s good news!]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy
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Comments (43)

  1. ctcoker

    One piece of good fortune: the fire started west of Mt. Wilson, not east of it. This means the fire must burn along the ridgeline to get to the observatory, instead of rapidly burning up through the canyons on the mountain’s eastern side. Mt. Wilson may yet be saved. Red Box was evacuated because the fire was about to overrun (and, indeed, now has overrun) the fire station there.

  2. Mena

    I just got the web cam image to work, I’m glad that it was just overloaded and not destroyed or disabled.

  3. Bigfoot

    Glad to hear about JPL escaping unscathed. I have always worried about it as it is nestled in the dry-as-kindling foothills above Pasadena, although the campus is big enough that hopefully any damage would be held to the wide periphery.

    Mt. Wilson Observatory, though drenched in too much light and air pollution to see dim objects, is still a very active image collection facility, and remains open to the public to this day. It is close to my heart as I spent many of my days and nights as a teen in and around it.

    I even introduced the area with a few potential Mrs. Bigfoots (although not the one that I eventually sealed the deal with — it must have been either my dissapointment with their lack of enthusiasm about interferometry experimentation or their dissapointment with how I measured up against 100-inch aperture optical tubes).

    The observatory has an extremely rich history, and you can’t help but feel the profound nature of the great science and famous names that accomplished so much on that mountain many decades before astronomers started using robotic telescopes and computer monitors for most of their work.

    Assuming it survives intact, and it better, all astronomy or science-loving dwellers/visitors in SoCal owe themselves a visit to this wonderful place if for nothing more than to share that feeling.

  4. Praying for the safety of the firefighters and local residents. The smoke in the high desert from the fire is unbelievable!

  5. gar

    It’s hard to tell from the Mt. Wilson cam if the bright glowing lights are indeed just lights or flames from the fire. It’s very ominous looking. At the same time, in the sky above, one can see the stars coming out. The loss of Mt. Wilson Observatory would be just one of many tragedies to result from this awful fire.

  6. What is also a bit scary is the fact that nobody in authority has mentioned a probable cause of this fire. That usually means human involvement.

  7. I just got back from a business trip to the high desert in Southern cali and the smoke was pretty thick the last few days out there! Hope mt Wilson observatory pulls through unscathed! I didn’t have internet access.tv/news coverage being on a base but man, driving around san bernadeno and not even seeing the valley but thick smoke off the mountains there was pretty crazy. Didn’t really know what was going on until i got connected again back home.

  8. @kuhnigget
    Not necessarily. Sometimes the investigation can take months. However check out the following link to the stats for the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in Feb…
    http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Saturday_bushfires#Overall_Statistics
    Scroll down a bit to the table. Of the 11 major blazes maybe 4 are suspected arson – fully 1/3 of the fires. Tragically that means 50 of the 173 fatalities were murdered. Interestingly the most common cause was power lines. If you include power lines, arson and machinery most of the fires had some form of human involvement though with the rest coming from lightning strikes.
    The amazing thing is the arsonists set fires on the worst day in history for fires in Victoria – low humidity, 46 degree C temps and high winds (100kph).

    @gar
    I was watching the web cam most of last night and the glow could be lights because it looks now like it did last night. You can see the glow of the fires off to the right though.

  9. MTP

    I just returned from Mount Wilson about a week ago from installing a new beam combiner at the interferometer. I spent the last 3 years on the project and cannot tell you the tension we are all watching with right now. I have been glued to the cam and all news sources for the last 3 days, the piece this evening on NBC Nightly News was very nice to see. I was happy to see them pull the fire crews because there is only the one road up or down and no place to put a helicopter down on the observatory grounds if crews go pinned down on the grounds beyond the skyline park lot. Most of you are watching closely I see, just to note in case you don’t see, primary and back up power lines to the observatory are out, there is a back up generator and most systems have batteries but the camera is expected to go out. I just checked that there was still power supplied to other systems that would not be on battery suggesting that the generator is still running as of this point. On a lighter note, the cam traffic brought the astronomy department at UCLA’s servers to most of a standstill this afternoon, where connections this afternoon were as sketchy as that of the towercam. Most recent cam pictures show Mount Wilson looking a lot like Mount Doom at this hour. For now its hopes and dreams and all extremities crossed.

  10. When I was in high school, my family took a tour of the Mt. Wilson Observatory. At the very least we saw the 100-inch scope and the solar observatory (where the webcam is now) I don’t remember much of the tour itself, but I remembered where I put my photos, and tonight I’ve scanned them and posted them to Flickr. (There’s only 8 of them, don’t worry!)

  11. @ MTP:

    I really hope your new beam combiner gets a chance to operate. Really, really hope.

    @ Shane:

    It’s a little different hereabouts. Usually the fire officials release the first word about their investigations pretty darn fast. In the case of the fire just up the road above Azusa, it was within a day of the fire’s start. That they haven’t said peep about this big one is very disturbing.

  12. I’ve got family in La Crescenta just on the south side of an evacuation zone and a brother who works at JPL. I can get some information out of the area that’s a little more reliable than news reports. JPL is safe, but they’re still keeping non-essential personell away. Mt Wilson hasn’t burned yet, but they had to pull almost all the firefighters off the mountain and it basically depends on the winds. The communities of Altadena, Briggs Terrace, Sunland and Juniper Hills are the “currently threatened” areas.

    Since my brother is non-essential personnel, he’s filling the extra time he has by running all over town with a camera and feeding me pictures and video of the La Crescenta area. I’m trying to convince him to range further afield to bring in other info.

  13. I always think it is pretty darn amazing that they can announce within days and sometimes hours where a fire started and how it started when the fire has burned out hundreds of square kilometres. It is an incredible science.
    A reasonably quick announcement usually happens here too but in the case of the Victorian fires they were investigating dozens and potentially hundreds of homicides so half the state was cordoned off as a crime scene and the investigation was very thorough.

  14. RBH

    I had a brief connection to the Mt. Wilson live cam at 0200 Eastern Time, and there is visible fire in the cam’s view south of west and what may be fire further away just north of west.

  15. RBH

    Time stamp on the most recent image is 23:22:44, so the cam’s still live.

  16. Joseph

    What kind of fire breaks, barren ground barriers, non flammable fencing, undergrowth removal, etc. has been done to the scientific establishments in Southern California? Since these fun fire/earthquake/mudslide calamities seem to be a yearly occurrence, what kinds of protections are put in place to defend against them? Particularly the fires?

    On that note it constantly amazes me that we (as a species) continue to build in areas that are prone to disastrous natural phenomenon. At least with something like an observatory there are potentially good reasons for building in such an area. But houses? Businesses? Why to we insist on building them on islands that nature never intended to be lasting (outer banks along any coast) or mountainous slopes in areas known to have massive landslides during rainy seasons. And the amount of people in flood plains blows my mind.

    I am skeptical of humans abilities to assess safe living conditions.

  17. Jeremy Chandler

    @RBH – As of a couple of minutes ago (23:39 PST), the photos from the tower cam do not appear to show any flame; the splash of light in the SW corner of the picture appears to be a floodlight reflecting in the heavy smoke. The lights in the photos have been visible and present since I tuned in to the cam at about 19:30 PST.

    I normally have a clear view of the observatory from my yard in Monrovia as I’m only 7-8 miles distant as the crow flies. Tonight, there is too much smoke present to see much of anything.

  18. Joseph: Having grown up in LA, I can tell you that the standard fire protection policies (for everyone, not just science buildings) is first rate. Maintenance (making sure critical areas are free of brush, controlled burns, excessive undergrowth removal, etc) is the problem. People often bwork their own safety in the name of expedience. Controlled burns, for instance are necessary in some places to keep the area from drying out and becoming a tinderbox, but when residents hear that someone is going to intentionally set a fire somewhere nearby to burn away undergrowth, sometimes they freak. Consequently it’s done less frequently than it should.

    The fun thing is that since the Jet Stream has already begun to creep north and there’s a hurricane brewing around Baja at the moment, just about the time when this fire is put out, LA might get a ton of rain. Rain just after a fire is just perfect for creating the Great Mudslide of Doom. I have a feeling this isn’t going to be over quickly. The only good news is that so far, very few actual homes have burned. The firefighters lucked out since there haven’t been the traditional high winds for the last week. If the wind had picked up significantly at any point, things would be much much worse.

    Lets just say that I’m glad I’m living in Wisconsin where there all I have to deal with is the occasional cute little tornado.

  19. @ Joseph:

    On that note it constantly amazes me that we (as a species) continue to build in areas that are prone to disastrous natural phenomenon

    It is population pressure, pure and simple. There is no other room left in Southern California to build. And the peoples gots to have their big new detached houses.

    @ Shane:

    I didn’t mean to imply the speedy solutions to a fire’s origins were always correct, only that fire officials here are usually quick to announce preliminary conclusions. That they haven’t done so in this case is cause for suspicion. (Among the sweaty-browed cynics, such as I.)

  20. Justin

    I live in Canberrra and had a chance to look through the historic Oddie telescope at Mt Stromlo a couple of times before it melted. Other than the loss of life, I found the damage done to Mt Stromlo the saddest part of the Canberra bushfires. Here’s hoping Mount Wilson fares better.

  21. MTP

    There is very little ground vegetation on summit of Mount Wilson, there are however lots of trees. The ground is also littered with leaves and other fuel from trees and what few other plants are around. While fire has been a risk before, Mount Wilson is fairly well protected because much of the top slopes are barren rock cliffs, this has in the past helped keep the facilities safe when fires have come from the south east. I do know that they had a large fire crew on the observatory grounds prior to the pull out clearing out the flammables around the structures, what I have not heard from the facilities manager was if this included cutting trees. Which as I indicated earlier, I believe to be the chief danger. I was recently on the mountain and it was most certainly bone dry. I have just put some pictures of the grounds up on my Flickr if you would like to get a look at what I am talking about, I wish now I had taken more pictures of the surroundings. http://www.flickr.com/photos/38718737@N06/sets/72157622203629344/ As for the placement of the observatory, Mount Wilson and the neighboring peaks have is considered by many to be among the best sky in the world. It was chosen as the location for the CHARA interferometer because the air above Mount Wilson is some of the calmest and clearest air in the world, most of the time. Since most of the work done at the interferometer is done in the infrared, the light pollution from LA is a non-issue. Of course selection for the original observatory was further simplified by the free lease that granted the use of Mount Wilson.

  22. Ray

    Wouldn’t have all these fire problems if they just cut down the trees and pave it all over.

  23. Cory

    While trees are burning now, the So Cal brush is what starts most wildfires. It grows on virtually any incline in virtually any soil situation, without needing any attention or much moisture, and additionally being very difficult to manage or remove. And if we paved it all over, the mudslide situation would be dramatically worsened. The sheer amount of space involved is, well, insane.

    If you want to broadly define “disastrous natural disasters”, very few areas that are otherwise habitable would be open, at least in the United States. New England gets off pretty easy, as does the (non-flood plain) Midwest. Then again, they only count if you don’t count the impending volcanic doom facing the entire North American continent..

    Basically, this stuff sucks, but we put a lot of money into fire departments for this reason. So Cal is so valuable on every economic and cultural level that it’s still worthwhile to suffer it out, even with the tragic loss of life and property. And it’s easy to forget that most of the millions of people in the region have never lost a home to a fire or a mudslide, or even been particularly close to either; and, obviously, car crashes on our busy freeways are much more common and deadly. Mankind’s resilience in the face of his own mortality is one of our better traits, in my opinion.

  24. Ray

    @ Cory,

    SoCal has valuable “culture”? BWAHAHAHAHAHA

    You owe me a keyboard.

  25. Chicago Astronomer Joe

    Aside from the actual fires, I’m wondering what the acrid smoke might do to the equipment and especially the mirrors on the Mt.

    Does the observatory campus have exterior sprinklers…?

  26. MadScientist

    If only there were an external sprinkler system that would really cut down the risk (unless you also had howling winds). A fine mist is extremely effective at blocking out that radiant energy. A load of falling embers is all it takes to burn the place down; they’ll sit on something that burns and then something else will burn and so on. :(

    @Chicago Joe: yes, soot and various volatile hydrocarbons from the fire can ruin surfaces. Mirrors can be stripped and recoated so a film of grime is not such an issue there and optical windows can be cleaned or replaced. The bigger threat comes from the ambient temperature; if those large mirrors change temperature rapidly they will shatter. If the mirrors change temperature gradually but get close to the annealing point (or higher) the mirrors will be permanently deformed; that high a temperature will also have its effects on the superstructure, bearings, etc. So a telescope can be rendered useless even if it appears to be OK at first glance. Also, a lot of electronics can be damaged at relatively low temperatures and depending on the electrical insulation materials inside an instrument, other fumes may develop and ruin things.

  27. Michelle

    The picture of mt. stromlo is eerily similar to the one of Mt. Wilson…

    (Also, I think Mike Brown has the MOST AWESOME twitter name EVER.)

  28. Firemancarl

    You can go to myfoxla.com for live coverage. I know it’s fox, but they have the best coverage. I watched it all day at work yesterday. I am on my departments wildfire tea
    so news like this really gets my attention. Florida may be known for sun and sand but we get some big wildfires.

  29. Michelle

    I just checked out the webcam of the observatory since the sun’s up now… A scary picture. You got the blue sky, the smoke, and that worrisome red glow at the bottom right.

  30. Firemancarl

    During our drought earlier this year, I was ‘mopping up’ a brush fire and about 9pm as we were getting ready to leave I just happened to look up and I saw the ISS zip by. Being only 30 or so miles from KSC provides some great opportunities.

  31. grmcdorman

    Looks like it survived another night. Lots of smoke in the 06:28 image, though.

  32. Ray: “Wouldn‚Äôt have all these fire problems if they just cut down the trees and pave it all over.”

    Please tell me you’re joking.

  33. Sparky

    There was some visible fire early this morning in the lower right hand corner of the image, on the area back behind the observatory, but that area seems to be obscured by smoke now. But the observatory is still there, and more telling, the camera is still active as of 6:50:45.

  34. Cory is right. Name me another place that doesn’t have its share of natural costs associated with living there. How many millions are spent on snow removal in the midwest? How much damage is done by ice storms or frozen power lines in the northeast? How many gazillions are lost when the seasonal hurricanes plow through the gulf states? How many lives are lost to caffeine overdose in the pacific northwest?

    Wildfires, earthquakes…meh!

    But about that “culture”…. ūüėõ

  35. Ray

    @ Will

    “Ray: ‚ÄúWouldn‚Äôt have all these fire problems if they just cut down the trees and pave it all over.‚ÄĚ

    Please tell me you‚Äôre joking.”

    It’s so very sad that you can’t tell. And just for that I’m not gonna say.

  36. @Ray: Hey, it’s not my fault that there are people all over that will say stupid things like that (and worse) but otherwise sound perfectly sane. I’m just trying to be sure. I mean no insult.

    It IS hard to tell, and that’s the kind of world we live in.

  37. EJ

    @shane

    “The amazing thing is the arsonists set fires on the worst day in history for fires in Victoria – low humidity, 46 degree C temps and high winds (100kph).”

    Not that amazing, if you think about it. Don’t know how they do it in Australia, but here in SoCal the authorities stopped publishing fire danger ratings for exactly this reason. They realized that to a firebug, “Extreme Fire Danger” translates to “Like to burn stuff? Today’s your day!”

  38. I’m not so sure the towercam is still working now. The timestamp has been stick on 9:20 for some time.

    Update: Spoke too soon its updating again now.

    see http://vixra.org/mtwilson/ for some grabs

  39. coolstar

    At around 11:50 PDT there appears to be fire BETWEEN the solar tower webcam and the broadcast towers, for the first time.

  40. 12:05pm, live shot from KCAL9 is showing smoke practically at the telescope domes (from the south)!! You can see the solar tower, 100″ dome. The Mt. Wilson towercam is showing a lot of white smoke, obscuring the view of the communication towers. They are reporting that phos-check drop by air is imminent. Also, ground crews will be putting up a fight.

    UPDATE:
    I live below Mt. Wilson (near Caltech), & just went outside. You can see a large white smoke plume above the domes. For the 1st time during fires, there is light ash falling.

  41. MTP

    Fire crews are currently on observatory grounds back burning all that they can on the ground, the observatory superintendent is reporting that this is the cause of this white smoke seen near the domes. These back burn fires have taken out one of 2 T1 connections to the observatory. I can’t believe that the cam . The 747 or the super scooper out of Lake Elsinore is in bound as of 2:36 PM PDT to drop on the mountain Fox is reporting. New site for updates from the observatory staff in case you didn’t catch it. http://joy.chara.gsu.edu/CHARA/fire.php Most recent update confirms that smoke near the domes are backburn fires.

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