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On Mt. Wilson, planning for the next fire

Relieved observatory and communications officials hope to expand precautions that were already underway before Station fire. Some proposed remedies could have environmental implications.

September 10, 2009|Ari B. Bloomekatz and Cara Mia DiMassa

Officials have been concerned for years that a massive fire could race up Mt. Wilson and burn vital communications towers and the historic observatory.

In March, fire and forest officials met with representatives of Mt. Wilson's various groups to deliver a grim warning: Overgrown brush had not been cleared away in years, endangering the mountaintop in the event of a large blaze.

The groups responded to the issue, forming the nonprofit Mt. Wilson Fire Safe Council and securing $200,000 in grants for fire prevention work.

But when the Station fire began more than two weeks ago, the grant money had not yet arrived.

Firefighters waged a long battle against the advancing flames -- using hand crews and masticators, taking chain saws to low-hanging limbs of oak and pine, and launching an aerial assault that covered trees with fire-retardant gel and foam. At times, they felt the mountaintop would be overrun, and there were prayers for a change in weather and winds to help in the fight.

The fire came close, but left most of the vital structures atop Mt. Wilson intact.

Now that the immediate danger seems to have been averted, officials are considering much more drastic remedies, including a fire buffer zone around the perimeter.

Experts said the buffer could be either concrete or perhaps a greenbelt with plants that don't easily burn.

"This whole episode has clearly shown how vulnerable Mt. Wilson is, and we do need to come up with a plan to not make us a sitting duck up here," said Hal McAlister, director of the Mt. Wilson Observatory.

Others on Mt. Wilson agree, adding that the focus on improving fire protection has varied among the stations that have transmitters there.

Tony Neece, a transmitter engineer at KTLA-TV Channel 5, said some stations have good plans while others haven't had "the sense of urgency that should be applied to fire prevention up there. There needs to be. It's something we are attempting to do. There's just too much going on in the broadcast industry now."

Jon Keeley, a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and an adjunct professor at UCLA, said constructing a major fire break around assets can be good protection.

However, he said if a substance like concrete is used, it could create environmental issues such as increased erosion from water runoff. He said that an environmental impact report would probably be needed before the construction of a buffer and that officials would have to weigh the importance of that type of buffer compared to damage to natural resources. He also said aesthetics would probably become an issue if natural resources were replaced by concrete or an unsightly fire break.

The greenbelt option would present fewer problems with erosion. He said one example is the Getty Center, which has used extensive plantings around its perimeter.

Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) said that it would have been a devastating loss had the Mt. Wilson facilities burned and that the experience gives officials the opportunity to improve protection of those resources. "Having successfully dodged the bullet, we need to redouble our efforts," he said.

Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief P. Michael Freeman said earlier this week that a fire break of concrete or another fire-resistant substance needs to be built "so this never happens again."

Freeman said he plans to present a more detailed plan to the county Board of Supervisors. Dreier said he had also asked Freeman to give him recommendations and he was prepared, if necessary, to sponsor a bill in Congress to help pay for the work.

"The fact that it's still there means that we have to ensure that it's going to stay there. I'm committed to doing anything we possibly can to have the buffer," he said.

That's welcome news for many of the stakeholders atop the 5,710-foot peak.

McAlister, the observatory director, said his facility is equipped with, among other things, a hydrant system and a large water tank. The staff is taught in some fire suppression tactics and the observatory has spent about $250,000 in tree thinning.

"We think the observatory is in good shape in a local fire, but in terms of protecting" against a major wildfire like the Station blaze, "there's many more things we can do," McAlister said.

Meanwhile, crews on Wednesday focused on the stubborn eastern edge of the fire in the San Gabriel Wilderness. The blaze remained 62% contained, officials said.

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ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

cara.dimassa@latimes.com

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