Mt Wilson Fire – Status

Mt WilsonGlass-1917

The 100 inch telescope glass going up the mountian to Mt. Wilson, 1917.

Image via Wikipedia





Fellow locals & other interested parties, here is some important good news as of an hour ago. It’s far from final, but continue to pray and cross your fingers for perhaps the most historic observatory in astronomy and the courageous sacrificial firefighters who try to save it.  And, a part of the personal history of many of us as well.

I just now decided to post  this to help get the word out on this news, to let as many of you caring people know – if you didn’t already!  So, here  is the latest update from the Director of the Mt. Wilson Observatory Institute, Dr. Hal McAllister:


Tuesday, 1 Sep 09, 7:21 pm PDTMuch 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 its 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."

Dr. Hal McAllister

Mt Wilson Institute



As I said, this is far from the final outcome. Things change by the hour. By the time you read this, the news could be final – for better or worse.  But, keep your hopes alive and sending prayers up to the mountain peak. And, continue checking in with the many fine local websites who are covering our local wildfire, seemingly 24/7! Each site seems to cover a different angle of the fire, almost in a complimentary manner!  However, the above link is currently inoperable, as is their web cam due probably to smoke and backfire activity on the mountain. A backup website for their Mt Wilson fire info is here.







5 responses to “Mt Wilson Fire – Status

  1. Here I am on the other side of the world, shedding a little tear at all of this. Your choice of photo lends added poignancy. I knew nothing of the Mt Wilson Observatory but I’m so happy to hear that it appears {fingers crossed, of course} that it will be OK. It certainly sounds like it’s in the best of hands. Thanks for this, Cafe P or O {sorry, I still can’t figure out which one to call you. 🙂 }

  2. Correction in previous response of gratitude for the survival of the observatory, to the typo in my last name…



    • Wow, Richard, which the telescope did you help build? Now, are you telling me you were around about 1918 for the 100incher? Central Engineering Dept of Cal Tech? Have any pictures of your great contribution? Thanks for you input, and we need all prayers not just for Mt Wilson, but Santa Anita Canyon/Chantry Flats, etc. above you which may just be allowed to burn. Yes, BURN! Believe It or Not!!

  3. I live below you in Sierra Madre. I designed some small bits and pieces of the telescope when I worked for Art Osborn a long time ago in the Central Engineering Dept. So I’ve been praying that that historic thing will be saved. What a pity it would be to lose it. Well… it looks like it’s still there! Thank you God!

    Dick Granger