Two Observatories Saved from Wildfire

So far the devastating Station Fire has engulfed some 245 square miles (640 km²) of rugged terrain north of greater Los Angeles, and as of this morning it's still only 56% contained.

But the good news for astronomers is that two observatories that were directly in the raging flames' path have been spared.

Mount Wilson's 100-inch telescope
Despite dense smoke in the distance, the dome of Mount Wilson's historic 100-inch telescope was unscathed by Southern California's devastating Station Fire. (Image taken late afternoon on September 6, 2009.)
UCLA Dept. of Physics and Astronomy
On Mount Wilson, home to an historic observatory and dozens of transmission towers, teams of firefighters went all out to keep the fire from reaching the summit. Their exhaustive (and exhausting) efforts, augmented by water and retardant drops by aircraft, saved the summit, as views from the site's tower-mounted webcam show. According to observatory director Hal McAlister, work continues to create a fire break along Newcomb Ridge, the one remaining vulnerable flank, and water hose has been laid in case that defensive effort fails. But the worst of it appears over, and the observatory staff have begun plans for returning the facility to operation.

McAlister has been keeping everyone informed through his frequently updated "fire blog." You should also check out the great photos taken by Dave Jurasevich, the observatory's superintendent, and the ones by Susan McAlister that document the devastation along the Angeles Crest Highway leading to the summit.

Helena Hotshots
Members of the Helena Hotshots pause for a group shot in front of the CHARA building atop Mount Wilson. Click on the image to see the full team, along with observatory director Hal McAlister at far left and team leader Fred Thompson at far right.
David Jurasevich
Defending the observatory has been costly. The Mount Wilson Institute, which manages the facility, is appealing to the astronomical community for funding — not only to recover from this fire but to upgrade the site to be better prepared "next time." Details are here. Please consider sending a tax-deductible contribution to: Mount Wilson Institute, Fire Recovery Program, P.O. Box 1909, Atlanta, GA 30301-1909.

Meanwhile, news has been much harder to get concerning Stony Ridge Observatory, located just 5 miles to Mount Wilson's northeast. It's home to a 30-inch (76-cm) f/6 Newtonian-Cassegrain built by dedicated amateurs during the 1960s.

Stony Ridge Observatory
A telephoto image taken from Mount Wilson's summit on September 7, 2009, shows that Stony Ridge Observatory has escaped serious fire damage.
David Jurasevich
Kay Meyer has also posted updates about the fate of Stony Ridge. A week ago, the situation seemed dire, as the out-of-control Station Fire was expanded rapidly to the northeast. By Thursday, September 3rd, fire officials thought the observatory had escaped harm, but the news three days later wasn't as hopeful, because the fire had taken out the nearby Vetter Mountain Lookout Tower.

Yesterday, however, Jurasevich took telephoto images of the area from Mount Wilson's summit, and it appears that Stony Ridge's dome and administration building have escaped unscathed. The lone casualty might be the facility's outhouse, but volunteers won't know the true extent of the damage until they're able to reach the site.

2 thoughts on “Two Observatories Saved from Wildfire

  1. Phil

    I can’t believe that they allow dense forest so close to vulnerable structures. Trees and brush /will/ burn sooner or later. There should be a fire buffer zone for 100m (or more) around every building, to minimize the chance of fire damage. Start cutting some trees, or face losing expensive, historic, and scientifically valuable locations!

  2. Patricia del Valle

    Great story.

    Likewise the photos. I’d love to e-mail this to my grandson, David Kanna. He loves planes and wants to become a pilot.

    I send him related stuff all the time… from young pilot internships to photos. I gave him a movable, wood, handcrafted Black Hawk helicopter couple years back.

    I’ll e-mail him this page and he can follow the link.

    My e-mail is pdelvalle@charter.net

    Thanks so much,
    Patricia

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