Mt. Wilson's critical communication structures need better fire protection, new chief says
Los Angeles County’s new fire chief said he wants critical communications antenna atop Mount Wilson to be better protected against wildfires, and wants the structures to be protected by a 100-foot zone -- or perhaps a 300-foot barrier in some areas -- devoid of flammable vegetation.
The entities that own property atop Mt. Wilson, including the observatory and the owner of communications equipment, adhere to federal guidelines that require only 30 feet of brush clearance -- far more permissive than standards normally observed in Los Angeles County.
“Long story short: We’re really trying to ask the Forest Service to implement the brush clearance standards in the county into the forest,” county Fire Chief Daryl L. Osby said. “What’s at stake is people’s homes in the forest, private property and the infrastructure we have on the mountain.”
Mt. Wilson is home to antenna for TV and radio stations, cellphones, and fire and police radio equipment. The area was gravely threatened during the Station fire in 2009.
“We really want the mountaintop to be hardened so that even if we’re not there, there shouldn’t be any impact to those facilities in case of a fire,” Osby said, adding that it would be helpful if the property owners invested in making their structures more fire resistant. “We’re making incremental progress, but more needs to be done,” Osby said.
Osby said he is in talks with federal officials to come up with a solution, but changing rules that apply to the Angeles National Forest could take years.
Some environmentalists have objected to the broader brush-clearance guidelines promoted by the county. “We’re looking into it from a safety perspective.... We want to do it in such a manner that we maintain the ecosystems and the environmental beauty of the forest, but we want to do it in such a matter that is safe in a fire. That’s the balancing act. And we’re not quite there yet,” Osby said.
The chief said that in late 2010, county fire officials came to an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service that would offer county fire aircraft to fly night missions to douse flames in the Angeles National Forest even if structures are not threatened.
Last year, The Times reported that the U.S. Forest Service failed to use water-dropping helicopters at night during the critical early hours of the disastrous Station fire. A heavy aerial assault did not begin until several hours after daylight.
-- Rong-Gong Lin II at the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration
Photo: A Los Angeles County Fire Department helicopter lands at Mt. Wilson during the Station fire. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times