Astronomical conflagration?

By Daniel Holz | August 31, 2009 3:07 pm

The mountains surrounding Los Angeles are on fire. One of the world’s largest metropolises has an uncontrolled wildfire at its very doorstep:
The station fire above La Canada. Photo: Wayne Smith, via NYT.
The Mount Wilson Observatory sits in the middle of the San Gabriel Mountains, and is visible on a clear day from many places in the Los Angeles basin. As you walk around Pasadena you can’t help but glance up at the dome, and imagine Hubble diligently performing his observations almost a century ago. By demonstrating that the nebulae aren’t in our galaxy, he ushered in one of the most humbling developments in the history of humanity. He showed that our galaxy is only one of many, and that the Universe stretches well beyond the limits of our familiar Milky Way. And, as if this weren’t insulting enough, he established that the rest of the Universe is running away from us at a tremendous clip.

The fire is now threatening this historic observatory. A live webcam (more commonly used to provide astronomers sky conditions [is it snowing?]) shows the view from the top (it occasionally goes down due to heavy traffic; if it doesn’t load for an extended period it may be a bad sign). Lots of smoke, but no flames at the moment. This is, of course, a chilling reminder of the 2003 fire at Mount Stromlo. You can follow the progress of the fire here. Perhaps our man on the ground will chime in with some live-blogging? Note: Phil is keeping us informed.

As it happens, many communication towers are also found on Mount Wilson. Should the fire sweep across the peak, communications for much of the Los Angeles area may be compromised. No cellphones. No TV. No LAX. Back to the stone age.
downtown LA and mushroom cloud
Although this looks like a still from a Hollywood disaster movie, it is much scarier. This is really happening. It is a sobering reminder that, despite our best efforts, Nature still trumps Man.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, News, Science and Society
  • Sean

    I think if we still had the internet, it would not be the Stone Age, even if we lost cell phone reception. And even if we lost the internets, there are always DVD’s.

    The fires are pretty scary, although damage to human beings and buildings have been kept to a minimum so far. At the moment, Mt. Wilson is okay; an unexpected strong wind could still change things.

    The best source of up-to-date info is on Twitter; either all #station updates (since it’s the “Station fire”), or Mike Brown’s feed.

  • daniel

    If all one has to watch are DVDs of Hollywood movies, it might be even worse than the stone age? Oh, wait. You meant these?

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  • MikeGras

    Nature still trumps Man? or man’s negligence in protecting his environment. I believe this to be a totally avoidable situation. I further think this to be the result of imprudent laws and neglect. Fire seasons will continue to be news events unless….

  • Count Iblis

    I agree with MikeGras. Why are there so many trees in the direct neighborhood of the observatory? There are also a lot of dead, dried out plants that serves as fuel for the fires. The fact that fires only happen infrequently means that a lot of this fuel can build up over time, so this has to be cleaned up regularly.

  • Richard

    Damage to humans and buildings may be minimal at this point, but imagine all the wildlife that has probably been incinerated. I think this is a horror that we generally refuse to think about. The problem with removing dead wood from forests is that you are extracting nutrients from the forest and removing wildlife habitat, ultimately making it less fertile. The real problem is humans.

  • Serge

    Wildfires not only unavoidable, they are parts of the natural ecological cycle. Actually fire prevention is one of the main reasons causing modern harmful to ecology firestorms. Fire prevention causing disruption of natural wildfires cycles, accumulation of inflammable materials and replace regular smaller scale wildfires with huge firestorms.

  • Jon B

    Meh. It’s a typical day in LA when the humidity goes below fifty and the temperature goes above a hundred. Nothing to see here, folks. *cough cough*

  • Ellipsis

    This will be nothing but a fond memory after the earthquake hits.

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  • greg

    I guess it’s a good thing Woman is still safe at least.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Mt. Wilson is flambe. They will have to find some place else to build a telescope.
    Coldest, Driest, Calmest Place on Earth Found

  • Count Iblis

    Well, at least a rare physical phenomena has been spotted: Fire tornadoes

  • The Real Dealt

    You build New Orleans right in the middle of hurricane paths, something well-known to man for centuries. Then to kick nature, you chose a spot below sea level. Look what happened.

    Then you build another big city, LA, right in the middle of earthquake hot zone, something also well-known to man for centuries. To kick nature, you chose a spot surrounded by mountains frequented by huge wild fires. Then to really kick nature, you build houses right in the middle of the bone dry hills for that great scenery.

    Let the big winds and big fires wipe out the extreme hubris of man.

  • Allyson

    It smells horrible here, Sean. And the air quality is like breathing in a burning barbecue briquette.

    I hope you stayed away. I’m going to finish up some tasks that can’t wait another day and head back home. Yuck. I’m missing three coworkers who are in evac zones.

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  • Lab Lemming

    “Then you build another big city, LA, right in the middle of earthquake hot zone, something also well-known to man for centuries. ”

    When, exactly, do you think the nature of transform faulting and plate tectonics was discovered?
    Los Angeles was founded in 1769.
    The boom was oil related, and occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

    And the photo shows a fantastic pyrocumulus cloud, with the particulate matter being trapped by an inversion that the steam-rich updraft is punching through.

  • Richard

    Serge said: “Wildfires not only unavoidable, they are parts of the natural ecological cycle.” Yes, and fires return nutrients to the soil, while physically removing dead wood does not and permanently removes nutrients.

  • Ben

    Fire is the greatest fear of observatory directors, I believe.

    It is in the nature of optical/IR observatories that we want to build them on high mountains in dry climates. Forest fires are a natural corollary. In the past few years, even besides the terrifying example of Stromlo, there have been substantial fires on or near Mt Wilson, Palomar, Mt Hamilton, Kitt Peak, Mt Graham and Mt Lemmon, close to Mt Hopkins, and probably on other mountains as well. Blaming this on some special properties of Los Angeles is beside the point. The only mountain-top observatories I can think of that are relatively immune to wildfire are those above treeline (like Mauna Kea) or those where the rainfall is so low that the vegetation is too scrubby to support a crown fire (most of the Chilean sites).

    What is true is that for most of the 20th century we built too many houses in the path of fires and practiced bad fire suppression policies by stamping out fires wherever possible, leading to buildup of highly flammable undergrowth. After decades of this, when fires are triggered (naturally or otherwise) they have so much fuel that they crown quickly and spread devastatingly. Drought makes it worse and the likely direction of climate change is to make the Southwest more arid.

    Western land managers understand this better now. In that respect, large fires are inevitable and not necessarily bad. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t defend Mt Wilson, but it does mean that expanding housing into vulnerable remote areas is a bad idea and that people who live there will have to accept fire as a risk. This is hard to get people to do because nobody likes to say “Sorry, we can’t keep your house from burning down.”

  • hackenkaus

    Drama queen. So you can see some fires from your house. Perhaps President Palin will appoint you to lead the “Department of Fires”.

  • Barb

    Just finished reading The Lord of the Rings as a family. That night shot sure looks like Mount Doom cloned!


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