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Flames from Station fire move within 2 miles of Mt. Wilson

August 30, 2009 |  1:08 pm

Lanow.wilson The Station fire burned within 2 miles of Mt. Wilson today, sending smoke toward its century-old observatory as well as communications towers that house transmitters for every major television station in Los Angeles.

[Updated at 5:40 p.m.: Officials now say the fire is moving rapidly toward Mt. Wilson and its landmark observatory.]

The top of the 5,712-foot mountain, which sits above Altadena, is home to multimillion-dollar astronomy projects for UCLA, USC and UC Berkeley. Georgia State University also operates a $20-million facility and a powerful telescope array at the Mt. Wilson Solar Observatory.

“A lot of people think of an observatory as one dome, but Mt. Wilson Observatory is actually a 40-acre tract of land with 50 to 60 buildings on it,” said Dr. Harold McAlister, director of the nonprofit Mt. Wilson Institute, which runs the observatory. “None of that stuff is portable, and to move telescopes out of there takes many weeks. We’re strictly at the mercy of nature and the great competence of the firefighters.”

Observatory staff members were evacuated Saturday. The view from Mt. Wilson's on-site Web camera today showed a smoky outline of communications equipment.

"There’s a lot of dollar value in those towers and of course what they mean to broadcasters in Southern California,” McAlister said. “It’s one of the major communication centers for this part of the country.”

Mike Dietrich, incident chief with the U.S. Forest Service, said the fire moved away from Mt. Wilson on Saturday but that shifting winds could still pose a threat. Overnight, the fire came within 2 miles of the observatory.

"It is not out of danger yet," Dietrich said.

The observatory was founded by George Ellery Hale at the turn of the 20th century, and its first telescopes were transported up the 9-mile Mt. Wilson toll road on the backs of burros in pieces that weighed hundreds of pounds each.

Now, the observatory offers visitors the chance to view space through its 60-inch telescope, which has been in place since 1908.

In recent years, the road itself has become a popular destination for hikers and bikers looking for a rigorous climb, although it has been officially closed to the public since 2005 after rain-triggered landslides buried portions of it.

After months of construction, the path is set to reopen any day, although there are still narrow patches county vehicles cannot navigate.

“They’re going to try to get some heavy equipment today to cut the road to make it accessible so we can actually get an engine and water tender up here,” said Jose Martinez, deputy forester for the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

Martinez said he and his crew were worried about the encroaching flames. But he added that he had faith the fire would be stamped out before it reached the historic mountaintop observatory.

-- Corina Knoll

Photo: A maintenance worker climbs KCBS' 975-foot radio and TV tower on Mt. Wilson in 2001. Credit: Los Angeles Times

More photos

 Photos: Southland wildfires

 Map: The Station fire

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