Mt. Wilson Saved ... So Far
September 2, 2009 at 2:57 PM (PT)
They're not out of the woods just yet, so to speak, but it looks like the historic OBSERVATORY and the 50 TV and radio broadcasting towers atop MOUNT WILSON may be spared from the devastation of the STATION fire. The L.A. TIMES reports officials now believe "that aggressive water and gel drops from aircraft helped prevent the mountain from taking a direct hit from the flames.
"But MT. WILSON is still in danger, and the fight there will continue," the story continued. "L.A. COUNTY FIRE DEPARTMENT Capt. MARK WHALING said machines were used to crush much of the brush surrounding the area there and that more fire-resistant gel was used to protect structures on the peak."
The keys to sparing the MOUNT WILSON site: a MARTIN MARS water-scooper airplane that dropped 7,200 gallons of water on the area TUESDAY, and crews who spread flame retardant and cleared away brush. As a precaution, however, CBS RADIO moved its FM stations to auxiliary facilities at sister Alternative KROQ's site in the VERDUGO hills above BURBANK.
How They Did It
The GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY website, which has devoted a separate page to its CHARA telescope array on MOUNT WILSON, offered some details as to how the firefighters gained the upper hand.
Prep work to defend MT. WILSON actually began at 8a TUESDAY, starting at the northeast corner of the Observatory using drip torches all along a line from that point traversing the northern perimeter to the boundary of the antenna areas. The same treatment was applied to the east and southern boundaries of the site. These fires cleared ground debris and burned down slope to meet any approaching fire with depleted fuel.
A Super Scooper dropped a major load of water downslope from the backfires and not on the Observatory grounds, supplemented by other aerial tankers and helitankers for more precision dropping at crucial locations. The goal was to slow down encroaching fire, disperse it and make it more manageable.
Approximately 150 firefighters were on MOUNT WILSON, along with eight engines equipped to spray fire retardant on structures in addition to the crew engines. They anticipated the fire "coming up the steep eastern canyon located between the Berkeley ISI facility and the CHARA machine shop -- due east of the 100-inch telescope." The back fires, burned all the way down this canyon, disabled this approach.
The biggest casualties of the back fire setting was a short in a pull box produce and the loss of all Internet connectivity to the Observatory, because the boxes were made of fiberglass pull boxes. The burning of ground cover melted the lid on one of the boxes and destroyed telephone lines and lines carrying T1 Internet signals. Outside of that, there was no structural damage to anything else on the mountain.
The Webcam Goes Down
An earlier casualty of the Station Fire is that the webcam at the MOUNT WILSON OBSERVATORY stopped working. The picture stopped transmitting just before 2p PT TUESDAY, with the observatory saying "backfire infiltration of a pull box containing telephone lines that bring us our T1 internet service" was the likely cause of the outage.
The last picture, still available, shows the towers shrouded in smoke.
"It's still a very treacherous situation," said U.S. Forest Service Incident Cmdr. MIKE DIETRICH. "The fire has a lot of potential, and it's still a big animal."
Crews made sunstantial progess against the fire TUESDAY, bringing the massive blaze to 22% containment, although the fire has been moving to the east towards PASADENA, ALTA DENA and MONROVIA.