Sunday, September 6, 2009

Mt. Wilson Observatory facilities spared

The vicious fires in California had threatened Mt. Wilson Observatory and other facilities this past week or two. The focus was on the old observatory and command public concern. That's good but understand that more importantly was a complex of communication and broadcasting towers that would be more devastating than the loss of an observatory. But, happily, all fears came to an end.

"Mt. Wilson Observatory Saved From Fire, Others Not So Lucky"


Alexis Madrigal

September 4th, 2009


A massive 150,000 acre fire burning near Los Angeles has been threatening the Mt. Wilson Observatory for the past week, but the historic site where astronomers first proved that there are many galaxies in the universe has been spared, barring any unforeseen circumstances.

“The Observatory grounds are in the best possible shape, the firefighters remain determined and in position, and we expect to survive this unless the approaching fire obtains far more aggressiveness and complexity than it now presents,” wrote observatory director, Hal McAlister, in a public update earlier this week.

In other good news, the Stony Ridge observatory, a smaller outpost six miles northeast of Mt. Wilson built by amateur astronomers in the early 1960s, also survived the blaze.

But other major scientific outposts haven’t been so lucky. Observatories, by virtue of their often remote locations, are particularly vulnerable in fire prone areas. Firefighting help can be scarce.

Most notably, the Mt. Stromlo Observatory outside Canberra, Australia, lost five telescopes during a 2003 fire. New Orleans research laboratories were devastated during Hurricane Katrina. In 1997, the High-Energy Gamma-Ray Astronomy observatory on the Canary Island of La Palma was partially destroyed by fire. Just last month, a fire broke out on the same island, which is now home to the monster new Gran Telescopio Canarias.

It’s not just astronomical observatories that face fire hazards, either. In 1994, a fire tore through the Pinon Flats Observatory, which makes geological observations on the San Andreas Fault.

“What worked was that the fire crews are amazing in terms of saving structures,” said Duncan Agnew, a geophysicist at the University of California, San Diego. “They didn’t know what the stuff was, they were just doing what firefighters do which is save structures.”

Even so, a vacuum pipe through which the scientists run a laser beam to measure land deformations on the fault line collapsed. It was a year before the observatory was back at full strength.

Even for institutions that are closer to help, like the Chabot Space and Science Center in the Oakland hills, fire abatement is a constant struggle.

“We’re all positioned in pretty critical areas. Surrounded by conifers, and unfortunately, up here, eucalyptus. All kinds of stuff that goes up like a Roman candle,” said Dean Sparks (no relation to fire), head of operations at Chabot. “The typical recommendation is 30 feet of defensible space. We’re at 100 feet minimum and we’re trying to push that out now. We’re increasing the amount of defensible space between us and the Monterrey pines and the eucalyptus, which is a big part of the battle.”

The Wilson Observatory itself has been hounded by fire multiple times over the past half century. In 1935, a fire broke out nearby but “175 men aided by four pumper crews brought it under control,” The New York Times reported. Disaster was averted again in 1953 when The Los Angeles Times wrote, “Men and machines, alerted to a dreaded shift of wind, were massed atop Mt. Wilson last night to fight back flames which could destroy the observatory, hotel and television towers on the peak’s summit.”

The situation repeated itself again in 1957. And again in 1965 when flames came within 300 feet of the institution. In 1979 another blaze lit up nearby. Skirmishes broke out earlier this decade over the maintenance of the institution, particularly the Forest Service’s management of pines in the area.

So, while fires near Mt. Wilson aren’t exactly unknown, what was different this time around was that thousands of astronomy fans could follow the fire’s approach via the observatory’s webcam. The image at the top of the post was the last one taken — and it sure didn’t look good for the station. As it turned out, most of the smoke was from controlled backfires set by firefighters, which made the situation look worse than it was.

Many major scientific institutions have been destroyed, but rarely in public circumstances. Eurasian science, particularly in Slavic regions, took a beating during World War II.

“At the end of the war, the Soviet delegation at Nuremberg formally declared that during the occupation the Germans had destroyed 334 institutions of higher learning and 605 scientific research institutes,” wrote historian Pamela Spence Richards. “Of its library holdings they estimated that over 100 million volumes had been destroyed.”

In a note published in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada describing the destruction of the Simeiz Observatory in Crimea, C.J. Chant wrote, “Astronomers of Canada and the United States may well have a thankfulness that the observatories in this western world have not been in the path of invading armies.” Axis armies looted the observatory and when a fire broke out in the main building, the German commander let it burn to the ground.

Nowadays, much of the data from scientific institutions is stored somewhere “in the cloud” or can be backed up and shipped out. It’s no longer precious, but the institutions like Mt. Wilson Observatory that produced the data provide a material record — physical data — about the methods of science. That’s valuable for scholars, present and future.

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Timothy said...

one would have thought that they would have cleared the area surrounding the observatory.....

Mercury said...

One would think so. Cleared brush, a tower reservoir of water, fire retarding chemicals strategically located would be handy preventive measure.