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Pitched battle underway to save Mt. Wilson from fire as officials cite progress elsewhere

September 1, 2009 |  4:24 pm

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Firefighters made significant progress today in the Station fire, but a tense battle was underway this afternoon to save the communication centers atop Mt. Wilson from flames.

Officials announced this afternoon that most of the evacuation orders in La Cañada Flintridge and La Crescenta have been lifted. Crews were making good progress during the day on the fire's southern, northern and western fronts.

But firefighters were frantically trying to save the historic astronomical observatory and dozens of critical  TV and radio antennas from destruction. By 3 p.m., the fire was approaching closer than ever from two directions: one-half mile to the north and three-quarters of a mile to the west.

“We expect the fire to hit the Mt. Wilson facilities between 5 p.m. today and 2 a.m. Wednesday morning,” said Los Angeles County Fire Department Deputy Chief James Powers. “Right now, we’re conducting controlled burns around the perimeter in preparation for the impending fire's arrival. We’re also bringing in trucks and special equipment to coat all of the structures with protective gel and foam if necessary. We do not plan to cover everything with a gooey mess.” 

The equipment was driven in on the two-lane, five-mile long Mt. Wilson Road, which intersects Angeles Crest Highway. Access to the road was restricted to firefighters and law enforcement. Fire lined several sections of the road on both sides, and rocks were falling from denuded hillsides.

As he spoke from his ersatz headquarters in the observatory’s main office, myriad controlled burns set beneath canyon oaks and old incensed cedars cloaked the mountaintop with dense acrid smoke.

The air was also filled with the ear-splitting, blaring sounds of an observatory fire alarm system.

Chainsaws could be heard in every direction in the surrounding forest. Massive earth movers were being unloaded off flatbed trucks nearby. Powers said authorities had deliberately delayed diverting firefighters and equipment to the scene until the complex was in imminent danger.

“That time is now,” Powers said. Los Angeles County Fire Department Battalion Chief Steve Martin said, “We are going to burn, cut, foam and gel. And if that doesn’t work, we’re going to pray. This place is worth a lot, but it’s not worth dying for. ”

In a worst-case scenario, firefighters were expected to retreat to the safety of the observatory parking lot or seek refuge in the concrete and steel basement of the 105-year-old, 100-inch telescope observatory.

A Martin Mars air tanker, also known as a Super Scooper, dropped 7,500 gallons of water on Mt. Wilson, California Department of Forestry and Fire ProtectionCapt. Scott Visyak said.

--Louis Sahagun at Mt. Wilson, Corina Knoll at Hansen Dam and Ann M. Simmons in Glendale

Photo: Flames from the Station fire approach Mt. Wilson Observatory in the Angeles National Forest. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

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Interactive map: The Station fire

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L.A. County Fire Department: The latest

Twitter: Follow @latimescitydesk | @latimesfires

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