FLAMES NEAR WIL­SON OBSERVATOR­Y

Also at risk are the dorm and TV and cell tow­ers. Steep ter­rain makes de­fend­ing the site dif­fi­cult.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Hayley Smith, Thomas Cur­wen and Louis Sahagun

A crew marches off to cre­ate a fire line as the Bob­cat fire burns above Ar­ca­dia in An­ge­les Na­tional For­est on Tues­day. The fire was near­ing Mt. Wil­son Observator­y, a dif­fi­cult site to de­fend.

Af­ter cross­ing con­tain­ment lines overnight, the Bob­cat fire moved within strik­ing dis­tance of the Mt. Wil­son Observator­y, the U.S. For­est Ser­vice said Tues­day, with fire­fight­ers mount­ing an ag­gres­sive de­fense from the air and on the ground.

The fire con­tin­ued to push in mul­ti­ple di­rec­tions Tues­day, with fire­fight­ers sta­tioned at the observator­y ready to do bat­tle and mul­ti­ple air­craft mak­ing wa­ter drops through the day. The observator­y is one of the crown jew­els of astron­omy, and of­fi­cials vowed to save the his­toric com­plex.

Of­fi­cials at the 116-yearold observator­y tweeted Mon­day night that the fire was “knock­ing on our door,” not­ing that all observator­y per­son­nel had been evac­u­ated.

But shortly af­ter noon Tues­day, for­est of­fi­cials tweeted the blaze was less than 500 feet from the observator­y. Fire crews “are in place ready to re­ceive the fire,” of­fi­cials said, not­ing that strate­gic fir­ing was tak­ing place to the south, where air op­er­a­tions were strength­en­ing bull­dozer lines.

“They are in a fire­fight right now, be­cause it is so close,” L.A. County Fire Capt. David Dan­tic said of crews po­si­tioned at Mt. Wil­son.

In ad­di­tion to the observator­y’s iconic struc­tures, there are sev­eral com­mu­ni­ca­tions tow­ers atop Mt. Wil­son that are threat­ened by the blaze.

“There’s ma­jor in­fra

struc­ture for ra­dio, tele­vi­sion and cell tow­ers up there,” Dan­tic said, “so there might be pos­si­ble dis­rup­tions.”

Progress on the fire has been slow. Af­ter hov­er­ing at 6% con­tain­ment for sev­eral days, the blaze, which started Sept. 6 and grew to more than 41,000 acres, is now only 3% con­tained.

“It’s a big­ger area now,” Dan­tic said Tues­day morn­ing. “Be­fore, we had 6% con­tain­ment when it was about 30,000 acres, but now the fire has got­ten big­ger. It’s a big­ger foot­print. That’s why the con­tain­ment is down.”

Mt. Wil­son is a ma­jor site in the de­vel­op­ment of astron­omy. The observator­y was founded by Ge­orge Ellery Hale in 1904, and its first tele­scopes — weigh­ing hun­dreds of pounds each — were trans­ported in pieces up the nine-mile Mt. Wil­son toll road on the backs of bur­ros. Now the observator­y lets vis­i­tors view space through its 60-inch tele­scope, which has been in place since 1908.

When the 100-inch Hooker tele­scope gath­ered its first light on Nov. 1, 1917, it over­took its 60-inch neigh­bor and be­came the largest tele­scope in the world — a po­si­tion it held for more than three decades.

Other ob­ser­va­to­ries — in the high plains of Chile, in or­bit around the Earth — have ren­dered Mt. Wil­son ob­so­lete, but the cam­pus is still a des­ti­na­tion for as­tronomers and stargaz­ers, who for decades have been drawn by its famed “see­ing,” a shared term of ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the qual­ity of light that de­fines Los An­ge­les.

The Bob­cat fire is ap­proach­ing the Mt. Wil­son Observator­y from its most vul­ner­a­ble front: the steep east­ern slopes that rise pre­cip­i­tously from canyons cut by creeks flow­ing into Big Santa Anita Canyon be­side Chantry Flat. The ter­rain can­not be de­fended by cut­ting a fire break, leav­ing air­drops and back­fires as the only strate­gies.

“If the fire does ar­rive, I sus­pect it will come first hit the ground near Echo Point,” said Robert An­der­son, a do­cent with the Mount Wil­son In­sti­tute, a non­profit that op­er­ates and main­tains the his­toric cam­pus.

“The ter­rain al­lows no stop­ping that without the air sup­port.”

An­der­son is most con­cerned about the nearly 100year-old dor­mi­tory, known as the Monastery, where as­tronomers would sleep dur­ing the day be­fore work­ing the night shift at the ob­ser­va­to­ries.

“The Monastery is perched on a ridge, a fin­ger of gran­ite, that is ex­posed on three sides with steep walls,” he said. “That whole ridge down to the Monastery could eas­ily to be lost without fire sup­pres­sant on it.

The home of the 20th cen­tury’s most cel­e­brated as­tronomers is on the line.”

Ad­di­tional per­son­nel have been added to the fire crew, which has been stymied by the ag­gres­sive, fuel-driven blaze for days, but the fire crossed the con­tin­gency line and was burn­ing along the east side of Lit­tle Santa Anita Canyon — the clos­est it had been to the observator­y and threat­ened com­mu­ni­ties, Dan­tic said.

“We were in the process of mak­ing a con­tain­ment line around the whole fire, but un­for­tu­nately, with the steep ter­rain and the fuel there, the fire got over a con­tin­gency line that we were try­ing to make,” he said.

Con­tin­gency and con­tain­ment lines are bar­ri­ers made by bull­doz­ers and hand crews that help re­duce fire fuel, but they’re not fool­proof.

“When flame lengths get so big,” Dan­tic said, “there’s al­ways the pos­si­bil­ity of an em­ber start­ing an­other fire out­side of the con­tain­ment line.”

In the for­est’s Big Santa Anita Canyon, of­fi­cials said they feared 80 his­toric cab­ins, along with the 1893-built Sturte­vant Camp, might have been burned as flames swept through the area Sun­day and Mon­day.

“These are his­toric build­ings made of wood and rock and pre­served as such un­der For­est Ser­vice rules,” said Ben Fitzsim­mons, pres­i­dent of Big Santa Anita Canyon Per­mit­tees Assn. “It is un­likely that this 100-year-old com­mu­nity has sur­vived un­scathed.”

Fitzsim­mons said he didn’t know the ex­tent of dam­age in the area but mourned the pos­si­bil­ity that many of the his­toric struc­tures “may no longer ex­ist.”

The cab­ins, built be­tween 1907 and 1936, are not typ­i­cal real es­tate. Own­ers are is­sued a “spe­cial use per­mit” to lease the land from the U.S. For­est Ser­vice, ac­cord­ing to the group’s web­site . Cab­ins can’t be pur­chased us­ing a mort­gage, and own­ers can’t use them as their pri­mary place of res­i­dence.

The re­sult, Fitzsim­mons said, is a small, close-knit com­mu­nity of peo­ple who of­ten spend ev­ery week­end to­gether — peo­ple who “gather to work on each other’s cab­ins and so­cial­ize to­gether, bonded by our shared ex­pe­ri­ence and love for this unique place that has been a com­mu­nity since the early 1900s.”

Dan­tic, the L.A. County fire cap­tain, couldn’t con­firm whether the fire had reached the Big Santa Anita cab­ins, but com­mu­nity mem­bers braced for bad news.

“We think we lost most of it,” said Deb Burgess, a cabin owner.

Burgess was doubt­ful that the For­est Ser­vice would al­low any burned cab­ins to be re­built.

Ir­fan Khan Los An­ge­les Times

Robert Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

CREWS FROM Glen­dale and Mon­rovia watch a con­trolled burn as the Bob­cat fire nears homes.

Ir­fan Khan Los An­ge­les Times

AS SEEN from Ar­ca­dia on Tues­day, the sun is ob­scured by heavy smoke from the Bob­cat fire in An­ge­les Na­tional For­est. The fire, which started Sept. 6 and grew to more than 41,000 acres, is only 3% con­tained.

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