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Mystery fireball seen across the Southland

Witnesses say the object was 'moving very fast across the northern sky' and appeared to fall near the San Bernardino Mountains.

July 02, 2008|Richard Winton | Times Staff Writer

From the Hollywood Hills to the Nevada state line, people reported seeing a fireball streaking across the sky and appearing to fall toward the San Bernardino Mountains on Tuesday morning. But explanations of the mysterious object were scarce.

San Bernardino County Fire Dispatch reported receiving dozens of calls related to a fireball moving at high speed in the northwest sky around 10:40 a.m.

"We got quite a few reports. It started with a gentlemen in the Lake Arrowhead area reporting a fireball in the Meadow Bay area, and then we started getting calls from all over," said San Bernardino County dispatch supervisor Tom Barnes.

"Fire crews in Barstow and on I-15 near Stateline came up on the radio and reported an object in the sky moving very fast across the northern sky and described it as yellowish green in color with streaks of debris. It looked like it burned up before it hit the ground."

Barnes said the department has "basically determined it was most likely not an aircraft and was probably man-made or a meteor entering the Earth's atmosphere."

Meteors are small rocky fragments of other planetary bodies that fall toward Earth. Meteorites are what strikes the ground. Asteroids are larger meteors.

A fireball is one of a common class of meteor, denoting a bright, streaming orb. Fireballs decelerate from 60,000 mph to 200 mph during their journeys, often burning up before they fall to Earth.

Studies have indicated that about 25 meteorites weighing more than a fifth of a pound fall on an area the size of California annually. Caltech experts say about 300 to 400 larger meteorites fell on California during the last century.

"Events like this do happen around the world. But a bright meteor is not something people would usually recognize in the day," said Lance Benner, a research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge. "The eyewitness account suggests it was a small asteroid hitting the atmosphere."

The fact that it was spotted in daylight suggests it could have been farther away than it appeared, Benner said. He said it could have landed several hundred miles away.

Benner said he knows of a case in which a fireball seen in Pennsylvania ended up landing in New York state in 1992.

Benner said it was unlikely any radar system picked it up.

However, it may have been caught by security cameras at gas stations or other outdoor facilities whose vantage point has the sky as backdrop, he said.

John Haire, chief of media relations for Edwards Air Force Base, said the base had no test flights at the time of the sightings.

"I think some people have been watching too much 'X-Files,' " he said, referring to the popular show about FBI agents investigating phenomena with no conventional explanation.

Most of the reports came from Riverside and San Bernardino counties, but a few people said they saw the fireball as far west as the Hollywood Hills.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said the FAA received no reports of any missing or downed aircraft and the military had not informed the agency of any problems with aircraft or missiles.

The Barstow Fire Protection District dispatched firefighters near the town of Calico, but found no evidence of a meteorite or anything else hitting the ground, officials said.

Rimoftheworld.net, which covers the San Bernardino Mountains area, reported overhearing a fire attack plane relaying that it had detected an emergency beacon near Butler Peak in the Big Bear area.

But no signs of a downed aircraft were found.

--

richard.winton@latimes.com

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