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Mt. Wilson and the fire

The last couple of weeks, the world in all of Greater Los Angeles has looked like this:

I’m 70 miles further west. The skyscrapers would be too small to see (and they’d be hidden behind the curve of the Earth) but the cloud looked much the same. That’s how huge it was. (There are many more amazing fire pictures at the LATimes site, besides the one by Dan Bartletti above.)

Three weeks earlier, I’d been up in the mountains that are now black stumps and grey ash, visiting Mt. Wilson. This was the view from the place that was going to be in the bullseye under that cloud.

I’d gone up to visit the Hale telescope. There aren’t enough superlatives in the language for the Mt. Wilson telescopes. It was where people first discovered that our galaxy isn’t all there is, that some of those fuzzy blobs are other galaxies just like ours. The universe suddenly went from being unimaginably large to being trillions of times more unimaginably large. It was where people found out that the universe isn’t just sitting there, that it’s expanding at vast speeds. It was where, together with the Lick Observatory, they first measured the speed of light. It was where the sun’s magnetic field was first discovered. The list goes on and on and on. Now it has one of the premier interferometry facilities and an important solar telescope (which has the towercam providing views of the whole area).

There are much better pictures at the Mt. Wilson web site, but this is mine of the fabled 100-inch scope. It was so far out at the limits of the technology available in the first decade of the 1900s that it took three tries before they managed to make the mirror, and Edwin Hale had a nervous breakdown because of all the delays.

When the fire came, the authorities pulled out everything they had to save the mountain top, but the news barely reported on the massively significant observatory. The big concern seemed to be the TV antennas propagating dreck from the center of the TV universe.

The brave, sweaty, sleepless, Olympic-athlete firefighters saved the whole place. A few of the Helena Hotshots, from a photo by Mt. Wilson’s David Jurasevich.

When I went in early August, I also wanted to see what was out during our biological equivalent of winter. It’s so dry at this point that most plants have pretty much shut down. But not all of them.

A blazing star doing its thing.

A bumblebee robbing nectar from one of the few types of hummingbird flowers that’s still out.

The interesting thing about chaparral fires is that they jump around. That’s bad because they can really spread. But it’s good because it means many pockets of unburned areas remain. Those very plants, for all I know, are still there, and still being visited by thuggish bumblebees. It’ll be a long time before I can find out because the Angeles Crest Highway is closed indefinitely.

But here’s a couple of Susan McAlister’s photos showing how it looks now.

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29 Responses

  1. We get fire, torrential rains, floods, mudslides, earthquakes, smog, dust storms and droughts.

    Maybe God is trying to tell us something?

  2. Those pictures from the LATimes photogs are unbelievable. They profiled them on the Sunday news shows this past weekend.

  3. These photos are worth a million words. I have hiked the PCT through the length of that area—Mt. Wilson, Mt. Williamson, Mt. Baden Powell, Strawberry Peak—just a few of the names that come to mind. It was notable to see some of the roadwork that was done as WPA projects and to see how heavily that recreational area was used. Newcomb’s market and thousands of week-end road warriors on Harleys; Chilao, the Devil’s Punchbowl—the massive train exchange at Cajon to the poppy fields in Palmdale. I know that some of that survives but so much is lost.

    What a tragic waste. I hope the Goddess is with us in the spring and the amazing wild flower shows that often follow such a fire come to the Angeles. If so, I hope you catch it with your camera and share it with us.

    Thank you so much for this post.

    • I’m definitely going wherever they’ll let people go in Spring to see the post-fire flowers. Here’s hoping the whole place doesn’t wash down into the valleys and create yet more catastrophes!

  4. I live in Pasadena and have spent my whole life in this area. Mt. Wilson is about two miles due north of our house. The last couple of weeks were unbelievable. It was 92 in the house every night and you couldn’t open the windows to cool it down because the air was polluted with smoke and ash. Nearly two weeks of that.

    We would frantically go online and check the Mt. Wilson towercam to see if the Observatory grounds were still standing. The camera went down at one point, but fortunately the place survived thanks to the firefighters.

    That place has so much meaning. You look up in the hills at night and see the antennae farms suspended in the night sky. My Dad used to work for KTLA in the early days of television, and he and his crew would occasionally have to drive up to Wilson to make repairs on the broadcasting equipment. It’s the communication center for all of Los Angeles, as well as being the place where Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding.

    So grateful to the fire fighters. Not only did they save Wilson, but they saved the Wildlife Way Station near Tujunga Canyon and Shambala, the big cat sanctuary in Acton that retired actress Tippi Hedren runs. I think of all the wild animals who died in this fire, as well as those who lost their habitats and it breaks my heart.

    Send good thoughts out this way. The temperature is going up this weekend again. Sigh. Here is a link to the 24 hour Mt. Wilson live Towercam, if anyone is interested:
    http://www.astro.ucla.edu/~obs/towercam.htm

    • Thanks so much for that live cam link—how amazing what our resources are these days and may your week end see those off shore breezes blowing the smoke to the deserts and beyond.

  5. Oh shit! From Jane Hamshter:

    When Max Baucus circulated his draft plan earlier this week, the PDF documentation page (image) indicates that the “author” was ex-Wellpoint VP Liz Fowler. Fowler was hired in February as Senior Counsel to the Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and famously boasted that “the reason that I have a lot of friends is ’cause I got to give away money.”

    If Fowler did indeed write the draft plan, then how did the same framework and language find its way into an amendment submitted by Blue Dog Mike Ross in July?

    Jon Walker finds that “the two documents are almost identical and and sometimes use the exact same wording”:

  6. OT. HIllary is 44 is totally cracking me up with this post
    http://www.hillaryis44.org/2009/09/09/what-to-watch-for-tonight/

  7. Timelapse of the LA Area Fires from Sept 4th – 7th. Shot from the UCLA 150 Foot Solar Observatory on top of Mt Wilson. Images copyright UCLA Department of Physics and Astronomy.

    Speed: 3000 times normal.

  8. I just flipped the tv on for a sec, Juan Williams talking about Obamacare turning into tort reform? Oh brother.

  9. Here’s something a bit OT.

    Seems another Repugnican gets outed for being a freak!

    Hmm…And they are supposed to be the party of “family values?”

    I

  10. It looks bald like that here too — after the ones we had. It will take years to grow back, but after the rains wildflowers blanket the mountains — the seeds stay dormant for years sometimes until there is a burn. But? It is always so sad, afterwards.

    The bald hills.

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