Confirmed: Stony Ridge Observatory Survived the Station Fire

Stony Ridge Observatory

Stony Ridge Observatory

There is some good news coming out of the ashes of the horrendous Station Fire that continues to burn some parts of LA County: Stony Ridge Observatory is safe.

The observatory, located approximately 5 miles north east of the larger Mt. Wilson Observatory, was built and is run by amateur astronomers. Also, the site is a lot smaller, meaning the single observatory dome couldn’t receive the same amount of fire fighting attention as the historic Mt. Wilson site. Fortunately, it would appear the 30-inch Newtonian-Cassegrain telescope is safe inside it’s domed home.

Last week, the Stony Ridge webmaster kindly left this message on Astroengine:

The Stony Ridge Observatory from Mt. Wilson. Credit: Dave Jurasevich, Mt. Wilson Observatory Superintendent

The Stony Ridge Observatory from Mt. Wilson. Credit: Dave Jurasevich, Mt. Wilson Observatory Superintendent

“For those of you who have expressed your support for Stony Ridge Observatory — thank you! As you can imagine, it’s been a stressful time for all of us, and we very much appreciate all the kind thoughts and expressions of support we’ve received. Although we’ve not been able to look inside the buildings yet, it appears at least from the outside that Stony Ridge has been spared damage but will require extensive cleanup. Keep checking the website every so often. More info/photos will be posted there as we get them.”Kay Meyer, Stony Ridge Observatory webmaster

Tonight, Pam Sable, a member of the Stony Ridge Observatory, sent me a message confirming that the site was safe. However, the wildfire has left its mark.

“Our site is in what used to be, a lovely forest only 50 minutes from my home in Glendale, which itself is an area only 20 minutes from Downtown L.A. Once in the Angeles Forest, all the sights and sounds of the city are gone. The damage to the forest is very sad but at least it will return in time. Yet if Stony Ridge had been destroyed, it would have been irreplaceable by today’s costs. We are very, very fortunate.” –Pam Sable, Stony Ridge Observatory astronomer.

Indeed, the fire is still burning. Unfortunately, fire fighters are hurrying to extinguish the blaze as hot weather is forecast for the next week. There’s also the spectre of the Santa Ana winds that could cause some complications.

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The view from Mt. Wilson Towercam, facing east (UCLA)

The view from Mt. Wilson Towercam, facing east (UCLA)

So, the observatory Towercam is back online, and the summit of Mount Wilson is looking decidedly un-charred and… peaceful. This means the fire crews did an outstanding job of removing vegetation and the aerial water attack obviously paid off. The Hooker Telescope dome is also looking fine.

But it’s the scene to the east of Mt. Wilson (the Towercam has been turned around), showing fires burning in the valley and in the hills (the nearest fires still burn in the West Fork of the San Gabriel River Canyon near Shortcut Saddle), that reminds us that the fire fight is far from over, and the fire men and women are putting their lives on the line day and night.

But for now, the historic Mt. Wilson Observatory is safe, and the lesser-known Stony Ridge Observatory is apparently intact…

Wildfire? Volcano? Warzone? Hell? All of the above?

wildfires

I think this timelapse video pretty much puts the Station Fire into perspective. The fire has so far destroyed over 120,000 acres of land, gutted dozens of homes and taken the lives of two fire fighters. Although it would appear fire crews are slowly getting a handle on the blaze (it was around 20% contained at time of writing), should there be a change in weather, the fires could flare up once more, but there are hopes that humidity should continue to rise through the night.

Also, it would appear the earlier fires spotted on the summit of Mount Wilson were primarily controlled backfires (i.e. small fires started deliberately by the fire service to burn off brush, thereby removing fuel for an uncontrolled fire). Now, an airborne assault has begun, water and fire retardant being dropped to slow the advance of the Station Fire around the mountain leading to the observatory. And now, the word is that fire crews seem to be winning the fight to save the Mount Wilson Observatory (thank you @palomarskies for the update!).

So, for now, I’ll leave you with this phenomenal HD timelapse video of the Station Fire created by willieworks. The view is of the mountains to the north of LA, from Mulholland Drive, above Universal Studios. It’s a scene that really does belong in the movies. What a sight.

Fires Hit Summit of Mount Wilson [Update]

mt-wilson-fire2

Update (14:07 PDT): Mount Wilson’s server has now gone offline it seems. The webpage with fire updates stopped functioning a little before 14:00 PDT and the Towercam is no longer sending images to the mirror website. The last image was taken at 13:49 PDT. Although we were warned this may happen due to power outages to the observatory, this is the first time it’s been offline since the start of the fires.

13:25 PDT: In a bad turn of events, the Station Fire reached the summit of Mount Wilson, coming within feet of the observatory buildings. It seems possible that this fire may be due to secondary effects from the Station Fire (i.e. airborne embers). Watch the unfolding events via the KTLA helicopter.

The 150ft Solar Tower and the 100″ Hooker Observatory are both under siege from the smoke and fire. Fortunately, the fires aren’t as active as they have been, possibly due to increased humidity in the region, but this is obviously a concern. However, fire crews appear to be controlling the blaze so far. According to @CalFireNews, fire crews are in the area protecting the structures:

*Station IC* There are between 5-8 Engines providing Structure protection for Mount Wilson. — CalFireNews

In case you cannot access the Solar Tower’s Towercam, check the mirror site.

My thoughts are with the fire crews bravely fighting the fires around the observatory.

Updates pending…

Fire Fighters Step Down From Mt. Wilson, But Flare-ups Still Threaten Observatory [Update]

A morning view from Mt. Wilson Observatory. Lots of smoke, but the fires seem to have calmed (©UCLA)

A morning view from Mt. Wilson Observatory. Lots of smoke, but the fires seem to have calmed (©UCLA)

Update (Aug. 31st, 15:00 PDT): The situation has taken a turn for the worse it appears. Ground crews have been pulled off Mt. Wilson and the fire is approaching the observatory rapidly. The fire will now be fought from the air. The Towercam is no longer accessible (although it is probably overloaded with traffic):

Monday, 31 Aug 09, 2:46 pm PDT – CHARA Array operator PJ Goldfinger reported that at about 2:00 pm she monitored an LA County Sheriffs Department transmission advising a pullout from Red Box, the major staging area near the mountain. I just spoke with Sherry Roman, Public Affairs Officer of the Angeles National Forest. She could give no updates as to the status of the fire in the Mount Wilson vicinity except that the USFS still considers that passage of fire across Mount Wilson is imminent and will be fought aerially rather than with ground personnel. Once the fire is through the area, they can assess the damage by air after the event before they can send in ground personnel. She also confirmed what PJ’s monitoring implied, that firefighters have been removed from Red Box.

This roller coaster has taken a dip downward. Mt. Wilson Observatory.

August 31st, 10:00 PDT: Well, last night was a rather dramatic night for the Mount Wilson Observatory. During the seemingly relentless charge of flames pushing dangerously close to the summit, news came in that it was very likely the Station Fire would arrive at the observatory some time last night. However, due to the brave efforts of fire crews who camped out on Mt. Wilson through the night, the observatory and telecommunication masts look like they’ve been saved, for now.

At this point, I don’t think [the observatory] suffered any serious damage. We’ll probably get some flare-ups or threatening flame activity, but we don’t think it’s going to be a major problem,” Inspector Edward Osorio of the Los Angeles County Fire Department said this morning.

Aggressive brush clearance and fire retardant appear to have helped, slowing the advance of the flames. However, the observatory and critical communications equipment are not out of the woods quite yet. The threat of flare-ups could still pose an issue. Another cause for concern is the fact that fire crews have been ordered away from the observatory earlier this morning, possibly to relocate north of the fire, the direction it appears to be heading.

Monday, 31 Aug 09, 7:50 am PDT – At 6:25 this morning, fire crews were instructed to withdraw from Mount Wilson. Larry Webster and Dave Jurasevich left the mountain with them. I have just spoken with Larry and Dave when they reached the bottom of the Angeles Crest Hwy in La Canada, and they report minimal fire activity in the immediate vicinity of Mount Wilson. It is not clear why the withdrawal decision was made nor whether or not the fire crews will return. Those fire fighters joined other crews deployed at the Red Box turnoff to Mount Wilson, five miles from the Observatory. So, they are still within close proximity for redeployment. Thus, the good news is that the fire in the Observatory’s vicinity seems to have diminished. The bad news is that there are no fire fighters presently on the scene.Mt. Wilson Observatory.

The Station Fire has claimed the lives of two fire fighters and caused nearly $8 million of damage. The fire is now 85,000 acres in size and continuing to spread in hot, dry conditions. Here in the San Fernando Valley, west of the Station Fire, the air is full with the smell of smoke and numerous poor air quality warnings have been issued.

Source: LA Times, Mt. Wilson

Fire Fighters Will Defend Mount Wilson Observatory Overnight [Update]

The view looking west from Mt. Wilson Observatory at 8:17pm PST (Aug. 30th)

The view looking west from Mt. Wilson Observatory at 8:17pm PST (Aug. 30th)

Update: Monday, August 31st, 05:45 PDT: In the early hours of Monday morning, it would appear the situation atop Mt. Wilson remains the same. The Towercam is showing smoke and fires to the West of the summit, but there is no further breaking news from the Observatory:

Monday, 31 Aug 09, 4:50 am PDT – No reports from the mountain yet this morning. Towercam shows new fire encroachment. The Inciweb update is eight hours old – 42,500 acres, 2,575 personnel – and two fire fighters lost.Mt. Wilson Observatory

Sunday, August 30th, 20:30 PDT: According to the Mt. Wilson Observatory fire updates, fire crews have decided to remain at the summit of Mt. Wilson to fight the Station Fire blaze overnight. There were concerns this evening that the conditions would be too treacherous for the fire fighters to remain behind, but it would appear this has changed.

Sunday, 30 Aug 09, 8:07 pm PDT – A critical aspect to the survivability of the Observatory should the fire sweep across it is whether or not fire fighters will be on site during such an event. The U.S. Forest Service continually assesses the danger to fire fighters in any scenario and will withdraw fire crews in situations that are particularly precarious. Such an evaluation took place on Mount Wilson in the last half hour with the decision for the fire crews to remain in place tonight. That’s very good news.Mt. Wilson Observatory

But the fire continues and Mike Brown, an astronomer who lives near (but doesn’t work at) Mt. Wilson, tweeted his eye witness account of his view of the fire: “Holy smokes; massive glowing plume tonight just west of Mt. Wilson is scarier than last nights 50 ft flames. #stationfire.”

Unfortunately, in another location, two fire fighters have tragically lost their lives fighting a blaze in Acton. According to reports from @CalFireNews and the LA Times the fire fighters were involved in an accident where their vehicle apparently rolled over a mountainside. The accident happened during a period of intense fire fighting.

This is a horrific reminder that hundreds of brave men and women are currently out there battling against hellish heat and poisonous air. My thoughts are with the lost fire fighters families and the fire fighters that continue to push on through the night atop Mt. Wilson and the areas hit hard by the Station Fire.

Updates pending…

“Station Fire” Could Damage Mount Wilson Observatory [Update]

The Mount Wilson Observatory webcam, looking west. City lights to the left is the approximate location of Burbank (©UCLA)

The Mount Wilson Observatory webcam, looking west. City lights to the left is the approximate location of Burbank (image corrected for contrast. ©UCLA)

August 29th: As the fires rage in Southern California, the “Station Fire” continues to burn unnervingly close to the famous Mount Wilson Observatory, about 50 miles east from my location. The above image was captured at 8:29pm (PST) tonight from the observatory’s 150-foot Solar Tower webcam (called the “Towercam”), and it’s pretty obvious how close the fire is.

Mount Wilson at sunset earlier today (©UCLA)

Mount Wilson at sunset earlier today (©UCLA)

Mount Wilson isn’t just important for the observatory, it is also home to telecommunication masts that are a lifeline for emergency services.

If Mount Wilson goes out, this news conference is done, because we won’t have any telecommunications,” Deputy Los Angeles County Fire Chief Jim Powers said in a press conference this morning.

Update (August 30th, 19:40 PST): Things are looking a little grim for Mt. Wilson. A couple of hours ago, the LA Times reported that the Station Fire was expected to reach the summit of Mt. Wilson in 2-4 hours. The worst news is, that due to a lack of escape routes at the observatory, fire crews will have to abandon the site should the fire get too close.

It’s a serious situation,” said Bob Shindelar, operations branch director of California Incident Management Team 5. “Is the observatory going to make it? We’re doing everything in our power. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it is impacted by fire today or tomorrow.”

The view from Mt. Wilson, facing west at 19:52 PST (Aug. 30th)

The view from Mt. Wilson, facing west at 19:52 PST (Aug. 30th)

At 17:42 PST, the fire was within 2 miles of the summit and closing. Fire crews have been working on removing brush from the observatory buildings, structures that cover many acres.

I was driving through Woodland Hills today, and the view from here was ominous. The smoke is thick, and a huge cumulus cloud was rising high in the atmosphere. At one point, the scene looked like a volcano from a distance.

Reports from the observatory itself however remain a little more upbeat than the LA Times with this update on their website:

The LA Times has released this article in the last hour. Our reports on site are not presently so dire, but the “fog of war” certainly exists in a situation like this. Every preparation is being made for this scenario, and it may indeed yet happen. I remain optimistic for now.

Lets hope the spreading fire slows before it reaches the observatory and telecommunication masts…

Updates pending…

Thanks to Mike Brown (@plutokiller) for the link to the Towercam.