Sav­ing ob­ser­va­tory from fire was epic task

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY HAY­LEY SMITH Los Angeles Times

It was a week into the Bob­cat Fire and 300-foot flames were lap­ping at the his­toric Mount Wil­son Ob­ser­va­tory.

This was the mo­ment fire­fight­ers and ob­ser­va­tory of­fi­cials had been fear­ing: the fire strik­ing a di­rect blow to the com­plex. Glow­ing red em­bers chewed through brush and trees, and thick smoke bil­lowed into dark skies typ­i­cally re­served for stargaz­ing.

“It was gain­ing a flame­front we couldn’t man­age,” said Os­car Var­gas, divi­sion chief for the Angeles Na­tional For­est. “One that could de­stroy the ob­ser­va­tory.”

Var­gas de­scribed an in­fer­nal scene of smoke and heat as he and more than 100 fire­fight­ers moved into po­si­tion atop the hill to try to save the famed site.

“It was in­tense,” he said. “We’d have to hold the lines when we could, back out when it was too hot, then jump back in with hoses and he­li­copters to mop the flames down and pre­vent the loss of struc­tures.”

The Bob­cat Fire’s path of de­struc­tion be­gan Sept. 6. It quickly over­took a vast swath of the Angeles Na­tional For­est, char­ring hun­dreds of thou­sands of acres near the foothill neigh­bor­hoods of the San Gabriel Val­ley and spread­ing all the way to the desert com­mu­ni­ties of the An­te­lope Val­ley, where dozens of struc­tures have been dam­aged or de­stroyed.

But among the big­gest wor­ries of the blaze – now one of the largest in Los Angeles County his­tory – has been Mount Wil­son, which re­peat­edly has come un­der threat from the fire.

Con­sid­ered one of the cra­dles of astron­omy, the ob­ser­va­tory was founded in 1904 by Ge­orge Ellery Hale. 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.

On the night of Sept. 15, flames came within just 500 feet of the sto­ried struc­ture.

“It sounded like a train, or a jet en­gine,” Var­gas said of the ag­gres­sive blaze. “The way the fire was spread­ing through the trees and all the brush – it was like an in­tense siz­zling, crack­ing and pop­ping.”

The bat­tle would last for the bet­ter part of a week, dur­ing which time smoke from the fire cast an omi­nous pall across much of Los Angeles County and con­tributed to air qual­ity so poor that peo­ple were ad­vised to stay in­side with their doors and win­dows shut.

Thomas Menegh­ini, the ob­ser­va­tory’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, waited with bated breath, fear­ing the worst.

“Our stuff is price­less, it’s ir­re­place­able,” Menegh­ini said. “There’s no mon­e­tary value you could put on these items.”

It was not the first time the ob­ser­va­tory had come un­der threat from wild­fires. In 2009, the fight against the sprawl­ing Sta­tion fire lasted five days and four nights, but ul­ti­mately the build­ings perched atop the 5,710foot moun­tain were saved.

The most re­cent bat­tle serves as an­other re­minder of how much is at stake there.

“We’ve been mak­ing a stand at Mount Wil­son,” L.A. County Fire Depart­ment Capt. Dave Gil­lotte said. “Half the time is very in­tense, and half the time is prepar­ing for it to be very in­tense.”

And that prepa­ra­tion helped pave the way for a chance at vic­tory. A week later, the once-roar­ing hill­side was quiet, and the ob­ser­va­tory had emerged un­scathed.

Var­gas cred­ited tire­less fire crews and a decade’s worth of fuel-re­duc­tion work – in­clud­ing the re­moval of haz­ardous dry brush and veg­e­ta­tion from the sur­round­ing for­est – in help­ing pre­vent de­struc­tion.

“The work we’ve done in the last 10 years paid off big time,” he said. “We had done sev­eral hun­dred acres of fuel treat­ment, so that helped de­fend and save Mount Wil­son.”

Mother Na­ture also of­fered an as­sist, as tem­per­a­tures cooled slightly af­ter the ini­tial fire­fight, the hu­mid­ity in­creased and winds died down.

“The weather fi­nally co­op­er­ated,” Gil­lotte said, stand­ing atop the nows­mol­der­ing hill­side. “We were fi­nally able to see the fire and to get to the fire.”

Menegh­ini said the ob­ser­va­tory’s struc­tures suf­fered lit­tle dam­age, save for a bit of scorched wiring.

“I ac­tu­ally got to sleep at a de­cent hour last night,” he said Thurs­day, a day af­ter crews turned a cor­ner on the eva­sive blaze.

IRFAN KHAN Los Angeles Times/TNS

The Bob­cat Fire burns dan­ger­ously close to the Mt. Wil­son Ob­ser­va­tory, reach­ing less than 500 feet from the famed com­plex in the Angeles Na­tional For­est on Septem­ber 16.

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