Firefighters used strategically set backfires Tuesday to stop a wildfire as it climbed toward the historic Mount Wilson Observatory in the mountains northeast of Los Angeles.
The Bobcat Fire grew to more than 46,200 acres and came to within about 500 feet of the observatory, a Southern California landmark that revolutionized the field of astronomy after its founding in 1904. Firefighters defended the astronomical research center and nearby broadcast towers from flames by setting backfires that deprived the fire of fuel.
“We had a good night last night and fire behavior moderated at the south end of the fire,” the Angeles National Forest reported on Wednesday morning.
Late Tuesday, the Observatory posted a photo of an eerie orange glow from the fire rising above trees on the peak.
Back fires were set throughout the day Tuesday near the observatory. The backfires remove dry brush that would otherwise burn and prevent flames from spreading rapidly toward structures.
“While there is still much work to be done in the southwest and in the northern sections of the fire, your firefighters did incredible work around Mt. Wilson today,'' the forest service tweeted about 9 p.m. Tuesday. “Assisted by the outstanding defensible space of Mt. Wilson Observatory, firefighters installed hand and dozer line - strategically fired, and dropped water creating a strong protection point for Mt. Wilson.”
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At midday, the fire was within about 500 feet of the observatory. No damage has been reported.
Observatory personnel were evacuated. Mount Wilson is not only one of the crown jewels of astronomy but also home to infrastructure that transmits cellphone signals and television and radio broadcasting for the greater Los Angeles Area.
The Mount Wilson Observatory, which also was threatened by the September 2009 Station Fire, was founded in 1904 by George Ellery Hale and soon became the world's forecast astronomical research center.
Hale brought a solar telescope from an observatory in Wisconsin to sunnier Southern California. In 1919, it became home to the world’s largest telescope, used to photograph stars and allowing researchers, including famed astronomer Edwin Hubble, to better understand our origins, the Big Bang and other mysteries of space.
"It would be beyond tragic if that place no longer existed," said Sam Hale, grandson of George Ellery Hale and chair of the observatory board. "You look through those telescopes where Edwin Hubble discovered that, yes, we were an expanding cosmos, and there's a magic there."
The abnormally dry vegetation has been fueling the blaze, leading to extreme fire behavior and rapid rates of spread. Full containment of the fire, which will be achieved by way of cleared vegetation, was not estimated until Oct. 30, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Officials had earlier estimated full containment by Oct. 15 but revised that date on Sunday.
Another primary focus for firefighters on Tuesday was keeping the fire from reaching the foothill communities to the south. Evacuation warnings remained in place in Pasadena, Altadena, Monrovia, Bradbury, Sierra Madre and Duarte.
An evacuation order for Sierra Madre and Arcadia residents in an area north of Elkins Avenue and east of Santa Anita Avenue remained in effect for Arcadia residents and “until further notice,'' for Sierra Madre, officials said. The area includes parts of both cities.
The Arcadia Fire Department reported that 267 Arcadia homes had been evacuated and no homes were damaged by the fire.
Sierra Madre police said 32 homes were affected by the evacuation order in their city, where the City Council unanimously approved a declaration of a state of emergency on Sunday.
By Wednesday night, an evacuation warning was issued for southeast Antelope Valley residents who live in Juniper Hills: south of Fort Trejon Road; east of 96th Street and east and south of Valyermo Road and west of Bob's Gap Road. Residents were advised to pack up and be prepared to leave.
A Red Cross evacuation center was established at the Santa Anita Park in Arcadia. Residents were advised to enter through Gate 5. More information about the center is available at 1-800-RED-CROSS (733-2767).
Pasadena officials urged residents to be ready to leave at a moment's notice, while officials from multiple foothill communities reminded residents that it is illegal to fly drones over the fire area.
The Pasadena Humane Society said animal control workers would be stationed at the Red Cross evacuation zone to assist with the transport of displaced pets to the Pasadena Humane shelter.
Evacuation orders were lifted for the East Fork area, including the Camp Williams resort in Azusa, the River Community Center and Fire Camp 19, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said.
Residents and business owners on East Fork Road between Highway 39 and Glendora Mountain Road were permitted to enter through Glendora Mountain Road in Glendora starting at 4 p.m. Tuesday.
All roads leading into San Gabriel Canyon are closed. Highway 39 is closed north of Azusa to state Route 2, which is closed between Upper Tujunga to Big Pines.
Upper Big Tujunga Road is closed between state Route 2 and Angeles Forest Highway. Chantry Flat Road is closed. Mount Wilson Road is closed from State Route 2 to Mount Wilson.
A closure order for all National Forests in Southern California was extended to Sept. 21.
The Bobcat Fire erupted on Sept. 6 near the Cogswell Dam and West Fork Day Use area northeast of Mount Wilson and within the Angeles National Forest. The cause remains under investigation.