NPR logo Historic Observatory Threatened By Calif. Wildfire


Historic Observatory Threatened By Calif. Wildfire

The Mount Wilson Observatory, surrounded by smoke from the wildfires that are burning near Los Angeles Hector Mata/AP hide caption

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Hector Mata/AP

The Mount Wilson Observatory, surrounded by smoke from the wildfires that are burning near Los Angeles

Hector Mata/AP

For decades, the Mount Wilson Observatory was the center of the universe for astronomical researchers. Now it's the focal point for Southern California firefighters, as they beat back a fire that has devoured nearly 122,000 acres and threatens to destroy 100 years of history.

On Wednesday, more than 3,655 firefighters and other workers pulled out the stops to keep the so-called Station Fire from advancing up the mountain where the observatory and 22 communications towers are located.

"They are placing a lot of resources up there to try to prevent it from getting to Mount Wilson because of the communications towers and the observatory," said Gabriel Alvarez, fire information officer for the U.S. Forest Service.

By air and on the ground, fire crews worked throughout the day to build a fire line that would cut off the wildfire's fuel source and halt the blaze. Fire crews manned bulldozers to cut through the tangle of brush and trees on the 5,700-foot slope, while aerial crews sprayed vegetation with fire retardant foam to keep it from being ignited by sparks whipped up by winds of up to 30 mph.

Alvarez said crews had created 75 miles of fire lines as a buffer zone by late Tuesday morning, and officials are cautiously optimistic about the observatory's chance for survival as long as the fire can be contained to one side of the mountain.

"We're hoping for the best, that it won't spread," Alvarez said.

Perched atop Mount Wilson, the observatory was founded in 1904 and became key to the study of the stars and sun — serving as home to what were once the two largest telescopes in the world, as well as powerful solar towers.

It was with the observatory's 100-inch Hooker telescope that Edwin Hubble discovered there were galaxies beyond the Milky Way — and eventually that the universe is expanding. Mount Wilson researchers also discovered that the sun has a magnetic field, and they determined the speed of light.

"Mount Wilson really defined modern astronomy and astrophysics," said Dr. Hal McAlister, observatory director and head of the Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy at Georgia State University. "It's where Edwin Hubble discovered the expanding universe. It's irreplaceable."

McAlister said most of the equipment was too large to move, and there was no real way to protect it.

Since most of the observatory's residents and employees were evacuated last week, a Web camera — dubbed Towercam — on top of the University of California, Los Angeles' 150-foot solar tower now keeps tabs on the situation at the observatory.

Luca Bertello, co-investigator of the UCLA research project, said the webcam has become one of the most popular Internet sites in the country, as scientists and others try to keep tabs on the observatory's plight.

Bertello said UCLA and the scientific community at large would suffer a significant loss if the wildfires damage or destroy instruments that took years to build. He, too, admitted that he has been glued to the Towercam to learn the fate of his life's work.

Most of the day, the towers appeared shrouded in thick, gray smoke. "From what I can tell, the situation hasn't changed much," said Bertello. "It's very smoggy."

Using the webcam and information from fire officials, McAlister has spent the past few days updating the observatory's Web site with news about the fire. "[Towercam's] steadfast watch on the mountain has been the only real link we have had up there for more than 24 hours, and the stable scene it is displaying is a real source for optimism," McAlister wrote early Tuesday morning.

In addition to Georgia State University and UCLA, the University of Southern California, the University of California, Berkeley and Cal Tech operate projects at the observatory. In addition, scientists from other universities and even other countries share time on the telescope.

Bertello said that data generated at the facility are irreplaceable. "There's no real Plan B," he said. "We're just keeping our fingers crossed."

Alvarez said officials are also eager to protect Mount Wilson's communications towers, which are used as secondary or primary transmission sites by cell phone providers and television and radio broadcasters, as well as the FBI, Secret Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and California Highway Patrol. He said most companies and agencies do not rely solely on the Mount Wilson towers.

So far, the Station Fire has burned 53 structures and is threatening 12,500 others. With the blaze only 5 percent contained, fire crews believe it will take more than two weeks until it's under control.