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Firefighters wage 5-day battle to save Mt. Wilson Observatory

In a mile-high duel, driven firefighters are determined to keep flames from the historic facility.

September 03, 2009|Paul Pringle and Louis Sahagun

It was near midnight Monday, and Larry Peabody looked toward a leading flank of the giant Station fire as it advanced over a ridge in the Angeles National Forest, marching toward the Mt. Wilson Observatory.

"We can't stop the head of the fire," said Peabody, a fuels battalion chief for the U.S. Forest Service, as he stood in the darkness on the bottom of Mt. Wilson Road, a narrow switchback off the Angeles Crest Highway that is the only paved road into and out of the peak-hugging observatory compound.

The battle for Mt. Wilson was fully engaged.

To one side of the firefighters were multiplying ranks of snarling flames that already had turned miles of centuries-old trees to charcoal. To the other side were a hundred years of astronomical history and hundreds of millions of dollars in communications towers, treasures to the city below.

Over five days and four nights, the fight would be waged on the ground and from the sky, and the odds of saving the legendary observatory and its neighboring thickets of broadcast spires often seemed slim at best.

Peabody and his colleagues were already exhausted. In oven heat, they had hacked away brush around Mt. Wilson's structures, and taken chain saws to low-hanging limbs of oak and pine, in hopes of starving the main body of the fire. As they toiled, smaller but growing flare-ups climbed the mountain like a procession of candle-bearers.

Now, some of the firefighters were trying to steal a few hours of sleep, or at least a few minutes, in bedrolls on a turn-off from the highway. Clogging the narrow lanes were boulders loosened from the braces of trees that had been felled by the fire.

On Mt. Wilson itself, two-dozen firefighters stood overnight sentry, positioned along the gloomy perimeters of the observatory and towers. A greater number might have been deployed, but there were more pressing priorities in the urban elevations -- the protection of hillside homes.

The domed observatory and its companion installations -- including the towers that serve broadcast outlets and a variety of law-enforcement and national security functions -- had been evacuated. The resulting scene was as otherworldly as Mt. Wilson's place in Los Angeles lore, as the 105-year-old science marvel whose 100-inch Hooker telescope had proved the existence of other galaxies flung across an expanding universe.

Columns of smoke turned the moonlight orange, and the flurries of ash mimicked the 5,710-foot mountain's winter snowfall. Sound came only from the wind, with some gusts created by the fire churning in sea-deep canyons.

At daybreak Monday, things had become worse. Twin fronts of the blaze drew closer, and the danger posed to the crews staging a last line of defense was suddenly a matter of moral imperative.

Firefighters were ordered off Mt. Wilson, and there were prayers for a change in the weather -- a shift in the winds, a burst of rain, anything that might make a return to the observatory less than suicidal.

"It's not worth dying for," said Los Angeles County Fire Department Battalion Chief Steve Martin.

He spoke even as the elements abided. Temperatures cooled a bit, the humidity rose, the wind died down, and firefighters pushed the flames back from the slopes of La Canada Flintridge and La Crescenta, in Mt. Wilson's shadow.

By Tuesday afternoon, the crews were back at the observatory, and an intensified aerial assault was under way. Helicopters bombarded the canopies of trees with fire-retardant gel and foam. A pair of 18-wheelers angled up Mt. Wilson Road to deliver two house-sized earthmovers, which were put to work scraping the hillsides clean of brush.

And then backfires were set under the oaks within a few feet of the observatory's gleaming white dome, triggering a skull-rattling alarm that blared from large horns on the building.

By dusk, all that could be done had been done to gird for the arrival of the flames, which were expected to scale the mountain by 2 a.m. Wednesday. A backup contingent of 18 fire engines lined Angeles Crest Highway at the turn-off, five miles down the road. Aircraft were on standby.

If the fire overran the compound, a last-resort measure would be taken to spray the technology-packed structures with foam. "We do not plan to cover everything with a gooey mess," said county Fire Deputy Chief James Powers, who was supervising the operation from his improvised headquarters in an observatory office.

About 100 firefighters were dug in, waiting. Two a.m. came and went, and the fire stayed below the observatory perimeter.

At dawn, it had retreated to a less-threatening distance, but not far enough for comfort. The same was true at midday.

"We're still fairly concerned," said Paul Lowenthal, a spokesman for the fire teams. "This fire is constantly changing and moving in different directions."

It wasn't until late afternoon that the die-hard crews were feeling good about their prospects of winning, even though scattered hot spots continued to menace the observatory.

"We're pretty confident," said Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Edward Osorio. "Mt. Wilson is going to be OK."

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paul.pringle@latimes.com

louis.sahagun@latimes

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