California Wildfire Beaten Back, for Now, on Famous Mt. Wilson
California Wildfire Beaten Back, for Now, on Famous Mt. Wilson

California Wildfire Beaten Back, for Now, on Famous Mt. Wilson

The mountain is home to two historic telescopes and many other scientific instruments, along with a billion dollars’ worth of broadcast transmission towers.

Ashley Yeager

Ashley started at The Scientist in 2018. Before joining the staff, she worked as a freelance editor and writer, a writer at the Simons Foundation, and a web producer at...

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Sep 16, 2020

ABOVE: A view of Mount Wilson Observatory on September 15, 2020.

Update (September 21): Mt. Wilson observatory is now considered safe from the Bobcat Fire, according to The New York Times.

Update (September 17): Mt. Wilson appears to be under threat again. “The #BobcatFire is still on our back. We thought we might have it down, but...... The more active area appears to be moving northward,” the Mount Wilson Observatory reported a few hours ago on its Twitter feed.

Sparing no effort, firefighters successfully waged all-out war yesterday (September 15) on a wildfire that threatened two famous telescopes and other scientific and communications equipment that sit atop Mt. Wilson, a mountain a little more than 30 miles northeast of Los Angeles. 

Flames from the fire tore through the Angeles National Forest and came within 500 feet of the grounds of the historic telescopes on the mountain, David Dantic, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, tells Reuters. The firefighters are continuing to protect Mt. Wilson as the blaze, called the Bobcat Fire, is not yet well contained.

The blaze was one of dozens of wildfires that began over Labor Day weekend. To date, the Bobcat Fire has engulfed more than 44,000 acres, according to the Angeles National Forest Twitter feed. On September 13, Deadline reported, the fire began to pose a threat to the Mount Wilson Observatory, which is home to 60-inch and 100-inch telescopes. Observatory employees were ordered to evacuate.

In the 1920s, astronomer Edwin Hubble used the larger telescope to show that the Milky Way was not the sole galaxy in the universe and later that the universe is expanding. While historic, the optical telescopes are by no means the only scientific equipment on Mt. Wilson. An array of six solar telescopes run by Georgia State University reside there, along with a solar tower, a billion-dollar set of transmission towers used by TV, radio, and government agencies, and roughly 50 buildings, according to ABC News 7.

Yesterday, the observatory reported on its Twitter account that the boundaries of the facility were secure. Only hours later, the Angeles National Forest Twitter account reported that the fire was within 500 feet of the observatory grounds and the dozen companies of fire crews dedicated to protect the mountain were using bulldozers and other equipment, including aerial water and fire repellent dumps, to keep the blaze at bay.

Around midnight local time, the Angeles National Forest Twitter account provided an update, which seemed to indicate Mt. Wilson was safe, for the moment. “While there is still much work to be done in southwest and in the northern sections of the fire, your firefighters did incredible work around Mt. Wilson today,” @Angeles_NF wrote. Later today @MtWilsonObs posted a picture of a reddish sunrise with no sign no flames in sight, only smoke: “Another “Martian” morning on the mountain. We hope today is filled with water and retardant drops as well as safety for the fire crews.” 

The observatory is “not out of the woods yet,” Dantic tells the Los Angeles Times. There are flames east and south of the observatory, he says. “There is a possibility that the fire could go back up north toward Mt. Wilson.”