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Historic observatory and telecoms hub on Mount Wilson threatened by LA wildfire

Posted by dorian on September 1, 2009


(Sipa Press / Rex Features) The flames have torn through dry brush in the San Gabriel mountains. (Sipa Press / Rex Features)


(Jon Vidar) The blaze, which started last Wednesday, has shrouded Los Angeles in white smoke

Los Angeles firefighters are trying to defend a major communications hub and historic observatory from a massive wildfire that is roaring out of control in the hills above the city.

The fire has already ripped through more than 100,000 acres (40,000 hectares) of tinder-dry brush across the San Gabriel mountains and forced 100,000 people from their homes since it started last Wednesday.

Two firefighters were killed tackling the blaze on Sunday when their fire truck slid more than 800ft down the side of a hill but so far the emergency services have managed to stop the flames spreading into the densely populated suburbs north east of Los Angeles.


(Hector Mata) Wildfires in the hills above Los Angeles are threatening the communications complex on Mount Wilson

They are taking every possible step – including hacking away tree limbs and cutting fire breaks – to protect Mount Wilson, home to the historic Mount Wilson Observatory, founded in 1904, and a complex of communication towers used for nearly 50 radio and television stations. The site is also used by mobile phone providers and law enforcement agencies.

The Mount Wilson Observatory is one of astronomy’s greatest historical monuments. In 1917 Harlow Shapley identified the centre of the Milky Way using the 60in telescope there, showing that the Sun is one of our galaxy’s peripheral stars.

In the 1920s, Edwin Hubble used the observatory’s 100in Hooker Telescope to prove that the Milky Way is one galaxy among many, and that the Universe is expanding.

Mount Wilson’s webcam, on the top of its 150m solar tower, was still broadcasting updates at 3.11am Pacific Time (11.11 BST), but Hal McAlister, the Observatory’s director, said that most power to the site has been lost.

“This is a very angry fire that we’re fighting right now,” said Commander Mike Dietrich of the US Forest Service. “I’m not overly optimistic but yet at the same time, our firefighters are going to be taking every action to keep this fire from burning more destruction.”

More than 3,650 firefighters are battling the fire in the Angeles National Forest, which sent a huge mushroom cloud of smoke billowing across the city and east toward Las Vegas.

A squadron of aircraft, including eight air tankers and 13 helicopters, have been deployed to bombard the blaze, although vast plumes of smoke hampered the aerial offensive.

Police went door to door ordering residents to leave affected areas. The fire has destroyed 50 homes and cabins and is threatening a further 12,000.

The fire is only one of several destructive blazes across California. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the scene of an even more destructive fire in Placer County, north east of Sacramento, that had charred 275 acres (110 hectares) of forest and gutted some 50 homes, including an entire cul-de-sac.

Mr Schwarzenegger urged residents who received an evacuation order to flee immediately. “I think the key thing is when you hear from law enforcement, anything about evacuation, follow their orders,” he said.

Officials revealed they were trying to reach five people who ignored an evacuation order in the Los Angeles wildfire. Mark Savage of the Los Angeles County fire service, said that no firefighters would be risked if conditions surrounding the trapped people were too dangerous.

“Our firefighters are watching very closely,” Mr Savage said. “If the situation becomes where we can get in there and get them out, we will, but we certainly won’t be endangering firefighters to make a rescue attempt at this point.”


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