California Wildfires Threaten UC Campus, Telescopes
California Wildfires Threaten UC Campus, Telescopes

California Wildfires Threaten UC Campus, Telescopes

Thousands of acres have burned across the northern part of the state, forcing the evacuation of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and posing a serious threat to Lick Observatory.

Ashley Yeager
Ashley Yeager
Aug 21, 2020

ABOVE: The view of Mt. Hamilton on August 19 at 10:57 p.m. Pacific time
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA OBSERVATORIES / LICK OBSERVATORY

As if fall classes, set to start October 1, at the University of California, Santa Cruz would not be strained enough amid the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfires in the state forced faculty and students living in residential housing to evacuate yesterday evening (August 20). 

The evacuation order came as wildfires ripped through thousands of acres of the Santa Cruz Mountains after being sparked by a dry lightning storm. “As this tragic event continues to unfold extraordinary measures are required immediately to avert, alleviate, or repair damage to University property or to maintain the orderly operation of the campus,” UC Santa Cruz Chancellor Cynthia Larive writes in a statement

When the mountain fires began, 1,200 people were living on campus, The New York Times reports. Faculty and students were told to stop all non-essential on-campus research on Thursday and instructed to “shut down all equipment as you would normally do for winter curtailment, secure chemicals in fire-safe storage, and secure lab notebooks and other irreplaceable items if possible.” Some research materials were slated to be moved off campus, according to an email sent to faculty and students by Scott Brandt, the school’s vice chancellor for research. 

All residents were urged to leave on Thursday, as well, and the university issued a mandatory evacuation order hours later. “Everyone must immediately leave the UC Santa Cruz residential campus and be prepared to not return for at least two weeks,” according to a statement issued by campus police chief Nader Oweis.

Farther north in the state, on Mt. Hamilton, east of San Jose, flames began to encroach on the Lick Observatory, a famous site that holds a suite of telescopes owned and operated by the University of California system. As of 1 p.m. Pacific time on August 20, the observatory “appeared have escaped serious damage,” according to a media release issued by the UC Santa Cruz, which is home to the observatory headquarters. Cal Fire and other organizations were critical to preventing damage to the telescope domes and observatory visitor center. The crews have been using the observatory as a command center to combat the fire.

“Thanks to their tremendous efforts, the telescope domes did not burn,” UC Observatories Director Claire Max says in the release. An observatory residence building not in use did burn completely and other residences sustained fire and water damage. And the danger to the observatory is not gone, as areas of the mountain remain unburned. “Firefighters are concerned that the fire may circle back,” the release states. 

Even farther north, fires are alight west of the UC Davis campus. University officials announced yesterday that short-term emergency housing would be available on campus for faculty, staff, and registered students and their families who had to evacuate or lost their homes due to the fires.

Correction (August 21, 2020): An earlier version of this article stated Mt. Wilson was east of San Jose, when in fact, it is Mt. Hamilton. The Scientist regrets the error.