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News from Mount Wilson:

"Station" Fire Threatens Mount Wilson - Latest fire news from the Observatory - check back here for frequent updates.

Dave Jurasevich's discovery from MWO of a new planetary nebula officially recognized

60-inch Telescope Model - Only 4 left!

Spectacular Imagery from Mount Wilson's dark skies

2009 MWO Calendar price slashed to $5 plus $3 for each addtional calendar

Banner photographs by David Jurasevich.


Station Fire Threatens Mount Wilson

See the current view of the fire from the Observatory's perspective as taken by the UCLA Towercam and check the overall status of the Station Fire at inciweb.org.


Wednesday, 2 Sep 09, 5:25 PDT - These comments will likely not be updated for perhaps as long as this coming Sunday evening. My wife Susan and I are flying out to LA tomorrow to spend some time on the mountain. Deputy Chief Powers has arranged for a fire department escort from La Canada to Red Box through all the road blocks, and we plan on staying on the mountain - in the Kapteyn Cottage - if we can. I'll be reporting back here with my impressions of this remarkable event and hope to have photographs and mpegs of our Observatory for you.

The situation remains as it has been all day. The Observatory grounds are in the best possible shape, the fire fighters remain determined and in position, and we expect to survive this unless the approaching fire obtains far more aggressiveness and complexity than it now presents. But, the fire to the north, against which all the back fires and preparation of last night were mounted, still lurks. I remain optimistic, but we cannot declare the end to any danger until the fire is declared contained by authorities. That date, as of the latest Inciweb report, has been set back to September 15. So, there's still much watchful waiting ahead.


Wednesday, 2 Sep 09, 2:45 PDT - I regret the confusion this will no doubt cause, but we have relocated the Mount Wilson Observatory website temporarily to www.chara.gsu.edu/CHARA/MWO/index.php. My Station Fire Updates will revert back to the MWO website at www.chara.gsu.edu/CHARA/MWO/fire.php.


Wednesday, 2 Sep 09, noon PDT - There is a great deal of interest in the UCLA Towercam on Mount Wilson, in particular as to when it might be returned to service. All internet connectivity to the Observatory was lost in the back fire setting process yesterday. Yet another lesson we've learned is not to use fiber glass pull boxes. The burning of ground cover melted the lid on one of the few boxes of that type we have on the mountain and then destroyed telephone lines and lines carrying our T1 Internet signals. We don't know when the Internet connection will be restored, but it is likely to be out for a number of days. This disappoints many people, not the least of whom is me, who have relied on those images as their eyes on Mount Wilson.


Wednesday, 2 Sep 09, 9:19 am PDT - The situation on the mountain remains stable with very good prospects. No more backfires were set last evening, so only the long defensive backfire on the northerm perimeter was lit. Additional backfires on the east and south slopes will be set only if deemed necessary. Heavy man and equipment power remains on the mountain and will stay there until, hopefully, an all clear is given. If and when that happens remains uncertain, of course.

Tim Rutten has a wonderful opinion piece in this morning's Los Angeles Times.

Wednesday, 2 Sep 09, 6:00 am PDT - The Mount Wilson Observatory website will be relocated to our GSU webserver later today.


Wednesday, 2 Sep 09, 5:56 am PDT - A briefing by Incident Commander Dietrich is underway as I write this. He reported that Mount Wilson "is still in good shape" and described their difficulties in communication on the site due to the intense radio frequency interference emanating from the broadcast facilities on the mountain. The Super Scooper dropped 7500 gallons of fire retardant gell yesterday.


Wednesday, 2 Sep 09, 4:47 am PDT - I learned before turning in last night that John Harrigan and Larry Webster repaired the power to the pump house within an hour of their arrival on the mountain. Fire fighters thus have access to the nearly 750,000 gallons of water in our fire and potable water tanks, and our three MWO folks remain on site to assist with any further problems that may arise.

No other news this morning, which I regard as good. I hope our folks are still sleeping as I start the day here in Atlanta.


Tuesday, 1 Sep 09, 7:21 pm PDT - Much to report! I just got off the phone calling Larry Webster's office on the mountain hoping to confirm his arrival. Instead of Larry, the phone was answered by LA County Deputy Fire Chief Jim Powers who is in charge of protection for structures at the Observatory. Wow, do I feel much better. First, Larry, Dave Jurasevich and John Harrigan arrived safely on site. When I identified myself, Chief Powers asked if I would like a briefing. You can imagine my answer. Here's what I know.

Fire fighters arrived earlier than I previously reported and by 8:00 am they had started their prep work. They began at the northeast corner of the Observatory using drip torches all along a line from that point traversing the northern perimeter to the boundary of the antenna areas. They are currently applying the same treatment to the east and southern boundaries of the site and expect to complete that this evening. These fires will clear ground debris and burn down slope with the intention of meeting any approaching fire with depleted fuel. Many of you watched the Super Scooper drop a major load of water, which was deposited downslope from the backfires and not on the Observatory grounds. That has been supplemented by other aerial tankers and helitankers for more precision dropping at crucial locations. The goal is to slow down encroaching fire, disperse it and make it more manageable.

Chief Powers expressed his absolute confidence that they will save the Observatory. He said that while it may have appeared over the last day or so that the Observatory was being neglected, that they never lost sight of the importance of Mount Wilson's preservation and it is now their highest priority. He flew up to the mountain yesterday, was delighted with what he found and knew they could achieve success here. There are now 150 fire fighters on Mount Wilson. Not only are the crews from Calaveras County (Cal Fire) back up there, but there are Los Angeles County fire fighters and even a crew from Helena, Montana. They have eight engines equipped to spray fire retardant on structures in addition to the crew engines. Chief Powers told me this army of fire fighters is "not going anywhere. They are very hard working and talented people who will get the job done."

After this uplifting briefing from Chief Powers, Dave called me from the CHARA conference room where he will be bunking down for the night. He filled in with some other information he'd learnd from the Chief prior to my own briefing.

The fire is slowly coming up to the mountaintop through the canyon containing the remnants of the old Strain's Camp. Mountain water wells are located above the old tourist camping site. They are also anticipated as coming up the steep eastern canyon located between the Berkeley ISI facility and the CHARA machine shop - due east of the 100-inch telescope. The back fires will burn all the way down this canyon to disable this approach. Dave reported seeing fire on the way up at Eaton Saddle down towards Camp High Hill.

There is no structural damage on the mountain. A short in a pull box produce by old flimsy splicing was compromised by the back fires and power lost to the high pressure fire pump system. (We have also obviously lost our internet connection to the mountain.) John Harrigan and Larry Webster were shopping at "Mount Wilson Depot" - the electrical storage area in the 100-inch telescope building - for materials to construct a new power line to the fire pump building. This should present no difficulties at all for those guys.

Our facility is in great shape for defensibility and in the hands of a group of enthusiastic, highly experienced and absolutely devoted fire fighters. I want to acknowledge my predecessor Bob Jastrow for initiating a brush clearing program that we have continued, and I thank folks like the W. M. Keck Foundation for helping us a few years ago with funding for that activity. Chief Powers assured me that there is never a need to fully evacuate our site and it is essential that we leave knowledgeable personnel on site to assist them and ensure that our fire fighting and support infrastructure is functional. "They are as essential to your protection as smoke alarms," Chief Powers said. That makes me feel so much better about letting Dave, Larry and John go back on site.

Hearing the absolute confidence and expertise in Chief Powers' voice has given me great optimism for, what the Chief said himself, would be "another hundred years for Mount Wilson Observatory."


Tuesday, 1 Sep 09, 3:40 pm PDT - Battalion Chief Cam Todd has requested that Dave Jurasevich return to the mountain to assist with some electrical problems the fire fighters are having. Accompanying Dave will be John Harrigan, an electrical engineer who has done extensive renovation of many of the original electrical systems on the mountain. Larry Webster is also returning with them.


Tuesday, 1 Sep 09, 3:30 pm PDT - I understand the Martin Mars Super Scooper is preparing a major watering operation involving Mount Wilson. Chris Farrington has provided this link that will show the water drop.


Tuesday, 1 Sep 09, 2:26 pm PDT - The Battalion fire chief on Mount Wilson has just called both Larry and Dave to ask how to turn off the fire alarm up there! His name is Cam Todd and he's a Cal Fire chief with crews from Calaveras County. These are the same fire crews who did such a fantastic job prepping the place over the weekend before they were withdrawn yesterday morning. Chief Todd confirmed that these are indeed backfires and he said his guys are doing a heck of a job and their efforts are going just great!


Tuesday, 1 Sep 09, 2:15 pm PDT - The Mount Wilson webserver went down moments ago, most likely due to a backfire infiltration of a pull box containing telephone lines that bring us our T1 internet service. All future updates will be posted here.


Tuesday, 1 Sep 09, 2:04 pm PDT - CHARA Site Manager Larry Webster, who left the mountain yesterday morning, has told me that what we see on the TV feeds is exactly what the fire fighters told him they would do to deplete flammables on the ground. Their plan, which they would have implemented earlier had they not been withdrawn, was to start these groundlevel fire and literally walk along with them to keep them controlled. This is why we see no flames. The fires will consume the accumulation of needles from the many pine and fir trees as well as other scrub growth that could flame up and ignite lower limbs that would them permit the blossoming of the entire tree into flames. All the smoke we see is entirely consistent with this procedure. Larry and Dave are both delighted to see what's going on, but I've got to say that seeing smoke next to those domes is very unsettling to me. Still, I know what the fire fighters are now doing is necessary to save the Observatory.


Tuesday, 1 Sep 09, 1:25 pm PDT - Go to www.ktla.com for live feed (click at the top of their homepage) from the mountain showing fire between the 60-inch and 100-inch telescopes along the south vacuum tube lines of the CHARA Array. White knuckle time, but if these are indeed backfires as we believe, then we are in good shape.


Tuesday, 1 Sep 09, 12:58 pm PDT - A mirror site has been set up for the UCLA Towercam by Alex Avtanski. His link will help reduce congestion on the Towercam server, and I very much appreciate this kind service.


Tuesday, 1 Sep 09, 12:32 pm PDT - I have been out of the office for an hour and many of you have told me about the live video coming CBS in LA. A good place to watch that feed is www.wildfiretoday.com. We believe there more engine crews have arrived a the Observatory and that backfires are being set. In particular, a fire was seen adjacent to CHARA's "W1" telescope, which is about 200 meters north of the 100-inch. That particular spot is densely filled with chapperal, and it is a logical place to set a backfire.


Tuesday, 1 Sep 09, 10:10 am PDT - Some good news. U.S. Forest Servie Fire Dispatch has informed us that as of 9:40 this morning ground crews were back at the Observatory. As of 8:00 am, air tankers were back in operation. The dispatcher expressed his opinion to Dave that as long as the fire continues to press the mountain from one direction "you are going to make it." Furthermore, there is some light rain developing in places in the Los Angeles basin, and there is a possibility for some thunderstorm activity that could lead to dry lightning. The humidity is up and the temperature is a bit lower, so, all in all, things are looking more promising than they have in the last few days.


Tuesday, 1 Sep 09, 8:40 am PDT - Before I forget, I want to acknowledge the great service that UCLA Professor Roger Ulrich's group at the 150-ft Solar Tower Telescope has provided us with their Towercam. Its 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.


Tuesday, 1 Sep 09, 7:15 am PDT - I wish I had some fresh substantive information to post this morning, but I do not at this point have any news - only what we can all deduce from Towercam and other sources. Towercam scenes continue to show thick smoke on the mountain with a concentration on the right side of the image implying activity on the mountain's north side. It clearly has not reached the mountain and, if advancing towards us, it is only doing so slowly.

The alternative website is not yet active, so please keep returning here for whatever news I can give.


Monday, 31 Aug 09, 5:30 pm PDT - As I mentioned earlier, we have lost the new backup power to the mountain. In anticipation of a possible loss of all power to the Observatory, where the MWO webserver is located, this update site will be relocated to http://joy.chara.gsu.edu/CHARA/fire.php. I will continue posting material on the current server, but if and when it goes dark, please make a note now to try the other URL if you are interested in keeping in touch with this situation from our perspective. In this event, the Towercam will also go dark. In the meantime, please keep coming to this site.


Monday, 31 Aug 09, 2:46 pm PDT - CHARA Array operator PJ Goldfinger reported that at about 2:00 pm she monitored an LA County Sheriffs Department transmission advising a pullout from Red Box, the major staging area near the mountain. I just spoke with Sherry Roman, Public Affairs Officer of the Angeles National Forest. She could give no updates as to the status of the fire in the Mount Wilson vicinity except that the USFS still considers that passage of fire across Mount Wilson is imminent and will be fought aerially rather than with ground personnel. Once the fire is through the area, they can assess the damage by air after the event before they can send in ground personnel. She also confirmed what PJ's monitoring implied, that firefighters have been removed from Red Box.

This roller coaster has taken a dip downward.


Monday, 31 Aug 09, 1:10 pm PDT - My day has been preoccupied with press inquiries, all of whom want to know what the situation is on Mount Wilson. The bottom line is that we don't really know. I've spoken with several officials of the USFS, and the last recorded report that they could give me was from 9:30 am PDT when a ranger reported that fire had not reached the vicinity of the Observatory. There was no word about proximity, direction, etc. or, indeed the level of threat to the Observatory. The information fog is demonstrated by contradictory statements within a single article in the LA Times, and I fear it will remain that way for the near term.

Dave Jurasevich has learned from California Edison that the new 33 kV power line installed to the mountain has been knocked out, but the original 16 kV line is as yet unaffected. So, Towercam, which remains our only "presence" on the mountain, is for the time being functioning. Current images show plenty of smoke but no flames - a comforting sign.


Monday, 31 Aug 09, 7:50 am PDT - At 6:25 this morning, fire crews were instructed to withdraw from Mount Wilson. Larry Webster and Dave Jurasevich left the mountain with them. I have just spoken with Larry and Dave when they reached the bottom of the Angeles Crest Hwy in La Canada, and they report minimal fire activity in the immediate vicinity of Mount Wilson. It is not clear why the withdrawal decision was made nor whether or not the fire crews will return. Those fire fighters joined other crews deployed at the Red Box turnoff to Mount Wilson, five miles from the Observatory. So, they are still within close proximity for redeployment. Thus, the good news is that the fire in the Observatory's vicinity seems to have diminished. The bad news is that there are no fire fighters presently on the scene.


Monday, 31 Aug 09, 6:10 am PDT - Larry and Dave report that fire fighters are preparing to set more back fires below the broadcast towers, but otherwise things are calm on the mountain for the present.


Monday, 31 Aug 09, 5:50 am PDT - Sky and Telescope magazine posted this story late last night.


Monday, 31 Aug 09, 4:50 am PDT - No reports from the mountain yet this morning. Towercam shows new fire encroachment. The Inciweb update is eight hours old - 42,500 acres, 2,575 personnel - and two fire fighters lost.


Sunday, 30 Aug 09, 8:07 pm PDT - A critical aspect to the survivability of the Observatory should the fire sweep across it is whether or not fire fighters will be on site during such an event. The U.S. Forest Service continually assesses the danger to fire fighters in any scenario and will withdraw fire crews in situations that are particularly precarious. Such an evaluation took place on Mount Wilson in the last half hour with the decision for the fire crews to remain in place tonight. That's very good news.


Sunday, 30 Aug 09, 6: 35 pm PDT - The LA Times has released this article in the last hour. Our reports on site are not presently so dire, but the "fog of war" certainly exists in a situation like this. Every preparation is being made for this scenario, and it may indeed yet happen. I remain optimistic for now.


Sunday, 30 Aug 09, 5:32 pm PDT - Dave Jurasevich is back on the mountain courtesy of the Forest Service. His helicopter ride included a survey of the fire in its entirety, and it is clear that the major activity and growth is not in the immediate vicinity of Mount Wilson. That's very good news. Furthermore, the activity during the day by the fire crews now stationed on the Observatory grounds, which consist of units from Calaveras County, California, is extraordinarily gratifying. They have occupied the day with very significant brush clearing and preparation of flammable wooden structures that diminish their vulnerability to save the prime science and historic facilities of the Observatory. We have opened visiting astronomer housing for them to use for showers and rest. These are extraordinary people who say they are just doing their job, whereas to us they are preparing to save a world-class observatory.


Sunday, 30 Aug 09, 5:32 pm PDT - Dave Jurasevich is back on the mountain courtesy of the Forest Service. His helicopter ride included a survey of the fire in its entirety, and it is clear that the major activity and growth is not in the immediate vicinity of Mount Wilson. That's very good news. Furthermore, the activity during the day by the fire crews now stationed on the Observatory grounds, which consist of units from Calaveras County, California, is extraordinarily gratifying. They have occupied the day with very significant brush clearing and preparation of flammable wooden structures that diminish their vulnerability to save the prime science and historic facilities of the Observatory. We have opened visiting astronomer housing for them to use for showers and rest. These are extraordinary people who say they are just doing their job, whereas to us they are preparing to save a world-class observatory.


Sunday, 30 Aug 09, 4:31 pm PDT - Larry Webster reports that aircraft are now laying down Phos-Check fire retardant adjacent to the broadcast towers. In spite of the optimism of my last report, it seems that the anticipation of fire spreading down the Mount Wilson ridgeline has increased. Observatory Superintendent Dave Jurasevich is in route back to the mountain via a Forest Service helicopter. Should the worst occur, there is a very secure shelter-in-place area designated in the 100-inch telescope coude room if personnel have to ride through a fire.


Sunday, 30 Aug 09, 2:07 pm PDT - Towercam now shows significant outbreak of flames on the west slope of Mount San Gabriel. Fire fighters have indicated this is not of great concern since the exposed east slope towards the observatory is relatively barren granite.


Sunday, 30 Aug 09, 2:00 pm PDT - This article has appeared in The Los Angeles Times this afternoon.


Sunday, 30 Aug 09, 12:30 pm PDT - CHARA Site Manager Larry Webster has been given permission by GSU officials to return to Mount Wilson to assist fire fighters and to continue preparing CHARA Array facilities for the situation. He arrived back on the mountain at about noon and reports that extensive preparations by fire crews continue. Larry counted five Hotshot crews (of approx. 15 members each) and estimated 15 fire trucks in the large lower parking lot between the antenna site and the Observatory. There are thus ~ 150 fire fighters stationed on Mount Wilson. The Hotshot crews are cutting fire breaks and thinning fuels adjacent to buildings. Our Superintendent Dave Jurasevich, who we hope will also be able to return to the mountain, spoke by telephone earlier this morning with the battalion fire chief on site and reports considerable fire mitigation activities on the Observatory grounds by fire fighters who have access to all Observatory facilities and equipment to assist their efforts.

We are very fortunate to have such extensive resources devoted to defending Mount Wilson, and I feel very good about our prospects up there.

Sunday, 30 Aug 09, 7:30 am PDT - Now that we no longer have staff on-site, we can only dig around through various sources to get the fire's status. The Inciweb.org report, which is 10 hours old at present, indicates that the danger for significant expansion of the fire exists today as it did yesterday. Towercam images during the night showed Red Box area flaming dying down, which is good news, but current Towercam scenes are obscured by smoke. The temperature is supposed to drop a few degrees compared with yesterday - good news for fire fighters.


Saturday, 29 Aug 09, 7:45 pm PDT - Just got off the phone with Dave Jurasevich who had arrived at Wrightwood after he and Larry finally left the mountain. They both desperately wanted to stay, but yielded reluctantly to my insistance otherwise. Larry was going to join his wife Elisa's family who lives in the interior of the San Gabriels, but an evacuation has been ordered for their area as well. The dedication and love for Mount Wilson of Larry and Dave is shared by many, and I can't thank them enough for devotion to duty. Nevertheless, I'm relieved to have them off the mountain.

The fire spread from 5,000 acres at the start of the day to 20,000 acres at last report. It is expected to back off tonight with cooling temperatures and then revive in the heat of the day tomorrow.

Mount Wilson Observatory is in the hands of the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention. These are extraordinarily talented and devoted people who I know will do their best to protect this world science heritage site and save the continuing forefront science programs from our mountaintop.


I will post additional news from the mountain as soon as I get it.

Hal McAlister, Director

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