Fires on the Mountain: Facing the Inevitable

By Julianne Dalcanton | January 14, 2013 1:58 pm

This weekend, Australian astronomy faced a horrible setback, as a large wildfire swept through the area housing the Siding Spring Observatory.

Luckily, no lives were lost, and while some support buildings were destroyed (including the fire shed, ironically enough), the damage to the telescopes initially appears to be far less than it could have been, thanks to the efforts of the fire crews.   (FYI, Amanda Bauer was doing superb work live-blogging news and images as they became available.  Click here and here, for  the day of the fire, and the day after as the state of the observatory became clear.).

However, as bad as this was, it wasn’t the first time, nor was it the worst.  Almost exactly 10 years earlier, Australia’s Mt. Stromlo Observatory (shown below) was devastated by wildfires, as discussed in this excellent article, where Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt discusses how at least one of the telescopes threatened at Siding Springs was built as a replacement for one that was lost at Mt. Stromlo.

If you think about it, it’s clear that the peril to astronomical observatories will continue indefinitely.  We typically put optical observatories on mountain peaks, in isolated spots.  While there are a few that are sited high enough to be above the tree line (such as Mauna Kea), the majority of smaller facilities are on lower mountains, and are typically surrounded by vegetation.  The combination of droughts and fire is inevitable, and sooner or later, another observatory is going to burn.

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