Firefighters Set To Stage 'Last Stand' On Mt. Wilson
September 1, 2009 at 5:11 PM (PT)
Despite some promising and hopeful signs in the morning, the Stage Fire continued to close in on MOUNT WILSON, home of the historic OBSERVATORY and no less than 50 TV and radio broadcasting towers. In its 4:24p posting, the L.A. TIMES website reports that the fire continued to close in on the mountain from two directions, just "one-half mile to the north and three-quarters of a mile to the west."
"We expect the fire to hit the MT. WILSON facilities between 5p TODAY and 2a WEDNESDAY morning," L.A. COUNTY FIRE DEPARTMENT Deputy Chief JAMES POWERS told the TIMES, "Right now, we're conducting controlled burns around the perimeter in preparation for the impending fire's arrival. We're also bringing in trucks and special equipment to coat all of the structures with protective gel and foam if necessary."
We are going to burn, cut, foam and gel ... And if that doesn't work, we're going to pray. This place is worth a lot, but itâ??s not worth dying for
Everything from earth movers to chainsaws are being used to stave off the encrouching flames. POWERS acknowledged that the firefighters and extra equipment returned to the mountain when they determined that the complex was in imminent danger, noting, "That time is now."
"We are going to burn, cut, foam and gel," added L.A. County Fire Department Battalion Chief STEVE MARTIN. "And if that doesn't work, we're going to pray. This place is worth a lot, but it’s not worth dying for."
The worst-case scenario: Firefighters will "retreat to the safety of the observatory parking lot or seek refuge in the concrete and steel basement of the 105-year-old, 100-inch telescope observatory."
A GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY website for CHARA, a six-telescope optical/infrared interferometric array on MT. WILSON, has also been tracking the goings-on. The site confirmed that L.A. firefighters were taking a more aggressive tack to defend MOUNT WILSON from the Station fire that surrounds it.
Early postings noted that a MARTIN MARS SUPER SCOOPER plane was about to undertake a major watering operation, and that "Battalion Chief CAM TODD has requested that MT. WILSON OBSERVATORY Superintendent DAVE JURASEVICH return to the mountain to assist with some electrical problems the fire fighters are having. Accompanying DAVE will be JOHN HARRIGAN, an electrical engineer who has done extensive renovation of many of the original electrical systems on the mountain. LARRY WEBSTER is also returning with them."
Both of those postings, however, were scrubbed from the site. Nevertheless, the TIMES reported that the "Super Scooper" air tanker dropped 7,500 gallons of water on MT. WILSON, according to CALIFORNIA DEPT. OF FORESTRY AND FIRE PROTECTION Capt. SCOTT VISYAK.
Looking Better In the Morning
Things looked somewhat promising in the morning. A 9:30a PT dispatch from the L.A. TIMES reports that "increasing humidity and slightly cooling temperatures this morning" helped the efforts of firefighters battling the Station fire.
Conditions had improved so much that later in the morning, authorities decided to allow firefighters to return to the area to continue fighting the fire. The area had been closed to everyone, including firefighters, on MONDAY.
A later update offered more details and the challenge that confronted the firefighters:
"Four truckloads of firefighter ground crews returned to MT. WILSON with picks, shovels and chain saws to create fire lines. But as they drove up the 5-mile road to the complex, gusty winds began to blow and fires above and below the road picked up. Large rocks falling down the burned mountainside added to the increasingly unsafe conditions."
More specifically, firefighters were setting backfires on the north side of MT. WILSON, which is full of drought-dried tinder, to reduce the ability of the flames to spread towards the towers and OBSERVATORY. "Their goal is to blacken the edges and reduce the chances that fire will rush the facilities. They are also increasing their defensible space," U.S. FOREST SERVICE spokesman RAY DOMBROSKI added.
Nevertheless, "I'm feeling a lot more optimistic today than I did YESTERDAY," U.S. FOREST SERVICE Incident Cmdr. MIKE DIETRICH told the TIMES. "We made progress last night, not just due to humidity, but good darn firefighting. They're fighting for every foot."
Furthermore, he expects containment of the fire -- currently at 5% -- to "go up substantially."
OBSERVATORY Superintendent DAVE JURASEVICH also expressed cautious optimism that the OBSERVATORY and towers will be spared. He told the TIMES that "the OBSERVATORY has emergency generators that can be turned on and also has a reserve of 700,000 gallons of water on site."
Can Retardant Save Mount Wilson Observatory, Towers?
For a while YESTERDAY, chemical retardant being dropped from planes was the main hope for the historic MOUNT WILSON OBSERVATORY in LOS ANGELES, where modern astronomy was born -- and is home to more than 20 television transmission towers, radio and cellphone antennas. USA TODAY reported, at the time, that "The Station Fire rages on, moving faster than 15 mph with 100-foot-tall flames. It's burning on two sides of MOUNT WILSON, a half-mile to the north and about a mile southwest, fire officials say."
"Right now, the fire is boss," LARRY PEABODY of the U.S. FOREST SERVICE told the LOS ANGELES TIMES. Reports have the fire won't be fully contained until SEPT 15th.
Despite harsh conditions, the observatory's Towercam is still transmitting images. Check it out here.
Crews set backfires and cleared fire perimeters before being pulled off the 5,700-foot-high mountain today, the PASADENA STAR-NEWS writes. The last two observatory workers also have evacuated.
LOS ANGELES TV stations continue to provide video, which you can view via these links: